July 24, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Occupied Iraq: The Islamic State Settles In
It has been 44 days since the Islamic State (IS) seized control over Mosul and other Iraqi cities. In the areas that it controls, IS is transitioning from an invading force to an occupying force, with predictable but tragic consequences for anyone the group deems as apostate.
As it settles in, IS is making sure others are leaving. The Christian community in Mosul, which has an 1,600+ year history in the city, was basically evicted en masse. Any Shi’a unfortunate enough to still be in IS-controlled territory will fare even worse. The caliphate that IS proclaimed last month is indeed ludicrous but to the people living under IS rule, it is all too real. Even if IS rule proves to be temporary, it is altering the country in negative ways. As it has done in the areas of Syria it has controlled for several years, IS is destroying the area’s heritage and socio-cultural fabric.
In the immediate aftermath of IS’ victories against the well-equipped but poorly-led Iraqi army, there were predictions IS would overplay its hand and revert to the barbarism against too many people. This would result in a popular uprising along the lines of the Sahwah, or Sons of Iraq, movement out of al-Anbar Province nine years ago. These predictions ignored three stark differences between 2005 and now.
1. IS is much stronger now than its predecessor group al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) ever was, thanks to the group’s immense wealth and weapons.
2. IS has been shrewd in the areas it is holding, establishing order however costly, and portraying itself not as an opposition but as a legitimate government, which is sadly more credible now than in 2005, given how abysmally Iraq’s national government has performed.
3. There is no supporting military capable of arming, training, and assisting an increasingly powerful Sunni opposition, meaning the Sahwah option rests more on nostalgia than an accurate assessment of a current Iraq split with deep divisions.
The predicted collapse of IS under its own hubristic weight hasn’t happened, at least not yet. What has happened is that IS held its gains longer than predicted, with dire consequences not only for the people living under its rule but for the concept of Iraq as a nation. Despite its overwhelming advantages in numbers, air power, and weapons, the Iraqi army hasn’t been able to mount a credible assault on IS strongholds, which is an amazing fact since one of those strongholds is Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.
The IS can safely rely less on popular support because there is no credible alternative in its areas. With its money, momentum, and weapons, IS is the de facto power in the land, even if the area is far less expansive than the regional map it propagated when it proclaimed itself a caliphate. As shown by its treatment of Shi’a and Christians, the group hasn’t modified its extremist behavior at all; the tragedy is that Iraq is so weak in many parts that it doesn’t have to.
Part of being an occupying force is administering in some fashion the daily duties of a government. Therefore, IS has been handing out food and fuel rations, established judicial systems, and its members are acting as both local police and defense forces. It is working on a dual-track of stabilizing the areas it controls and destabilizing the areas it doesn’t, with the increase in car bombings in Baghdad and not in Mosul an indicator. The longer IS serves as a government, however illegitimate, and the longer Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki serves as an impediment, however legitimate, the harder it will be to reverse the damage. This is why calls for a comprehensive reform of government to coincide with a comprehensive military assault on IS are likely the wisest calls; nothing else will have lasting positive effect.
Iraq finds itself occupied again, and this time it is not so much an army that holds sway as it is a violent ideology merging with collapsing trust in representative government. IS is systematically trying to create a future for Iraq that has nothing to do with its diverse Mesopotamian past. The longer IS remains, the less Iraq does.
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