The Cost of Iraq's Fragmentation

Iraq Oil Fields

Photo courtesy of Iraq Business News

The Cost of Iraq's Fragmentation
| published June 24, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff

When countries dissolve into the kind of chaos now being seen in Iraq, the blame game in Washington goes into overdrive. A long war was fought, billions of dollars were spent, and thousands of lives were lost. Starting last week and moving with intensity over the weekend, the cascade of bad news from the Middle East was accompanied by sometimes vicious cycle of recriminations and finger-pointing. Not since the height of the war in the mid-aught years have blood pressures run so high and anger been so palpable on the faces of politicians in the United States.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats, nor liberals, moderates, conservatives, or neo-cons, want to be left standing when this music stops.

Over the last few days ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) has successfully consolidated areas under its control even as it has continued to move with lightning speed across Iraq. The breathtaking collapse of Iraq’s army is now being accompanied by the even more troubling specter of border checkpoints and border security outposts falling into the hands of the militants.

ISIS now controls at least six major border crossings between Iraq and its neighbors Syria and Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the troubled region. More ominous: the short distance between the forward positions of the heavily armed and highly motivated ISIS fighters and the northern border with Saudi Arabia. The threat to Saudi Arabia is now no longer a distant, abstract possibility—and the repercussions of political disruption on the Arabian Peninsula would ripple quickly into a global economy still struggling to recover from recession.

ISIS, also sometimes called ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), is an offshoot of the original al Qaeda operations in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria. Never fully snuffed out, civil war in Syria gave it an opportunity to regroup. The militant group’s goal is to create a caliphate—a religious state over a wider Arabic-speaking realm stretching from Syria’s northern border with Turkey all the way to the Persian Gulf, and down as far as Saudi Arabia. In ISIS’s path will follow strict sharia law—women must be veiled and remain indoors except for market activities, schools are to be closed, religious diversity will be outlawed, political opposition closed down, thieves will face amputation, and accusations of infidelity by women will be followed by stoning. Oh, and if you are caught wearing the uniform of the Iraqi army or the police, you will be shot.

What makes this crisis more dangerous is that ISIS is on the move using a highly-organized, highly-motivated conventional army. These are no longer tiny cells of al Qaeda operatives moving in Nissan pickup trucks—this is an army which is heavily armed. In the wake of the Iraqi army’s collapse, ISIS fighters have collected thousands of pieces of small arms, dozens of tanks and personnel carriers, scores of Jeeps and SUVs, ammunition, maps and intelligence materials, radios and two-way communication gear, and even huge stocks of cash from banks in Mosul which were cleaned out by the militants.

That cash worries some observers who say that it will be used to buy more weapons, but it may also be used for recruitment purposes. Indeed, ISIS has already raised its marketing efforts, producing new slickly shot and edited videos, and producing thousands of high-quality leaflets for distribution within the Arab world. Intelligence experts have been watching with concern the frequent reports of pro-ISIS literature turning up in Saudi Arabian cities and towns, as well as in some small towns inside Jordan.

According to Arabic-language television reports in Amman, the Jordanian government was so concerned about the loss of the border checkpoints along its eastern frontier—and the threat that ISIS may seek to spread its influence into the kingdom—that it has sent thousands of troops to reinforce those outposts and positions, and to ensure that Jordanian arms and equipment do not fall into the hands of the militants. Jordan also sent tanks and heavy firepower to its desert border with Iraq.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has travelled to Baghdad, and today met with leaders of various religious sects—Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis—as well as a two-hour-plus meeting with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Maliki, most observers agree, has been somewhat responsible for the fragmentation of Iraq. The Prime Minister’s policy of excluding Sunnis from key roles and positions in the government has disenfranchised Sunnis, especially in the northern parts of the country where ISIS movement was the swiftest over the last few weeks.

But some place the blame for the current meltdown on other factors. They say that although Maliki has been negligent in his segregationist policies, the causes of this crisis can be found in Syria’s long civil war, where a weak U.S. response enabled Syria to descend into lawlessness and humanitarian turmoil. Such was Syria’s condition of chaos and fragmentation that it fostered a haven for a resurgent al Qaeda in the Levant, and gave rise to ISIS’s ability to recruit men all-too-familiar with warfare and weaponry.

Still others regard the problem as being linked to the Arab Spring, when a variety of nations faced intense pressure and popular uprisings, including Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. The upheavals were fraught with complexities, and conservatives (along with some liberals) argued that President Obama reacted too slowly, too cautiously, and in many cases—not at all. Syria’s violent descent into chaos began as a component of the Arab Spring, and U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have both stated publicly that Syria’s meltdown gave rise to ISIS, and enabled it to flower and grow into the ultra-violent force that it has now become.

Liberals have defended Obama’s actions as being, if not prudently cautious, certainly reasonable within the context of an already badly-broken Middle East template. It was George W. Bush who took us into this war in the first place, and it was Bush and his insular circle of neo-cons who cooked the books on weapons of mass destruction, and it was those same hawks who ignored evidence to the contrary. Even some respected Republicans and conservatives at the time warned Bush about the long-term consequences of a broken, shattered Iraq.

In the meantime, oil prices will rise as the chaos in Iraq spreads. After a week of fierce fighting for control of the massive domestic refinery at Baiji, Iraqi troops succumbed and withdrew, abandoning their positions though Iraq commanders say that they are confident they can retake the facility. Oil traders are not so certain, and crude prices will surely rise through July and well into August.

If ISIS continues to move rapidly into southern Iraq, dozens of other major oil facilities will be at risk. But even as the Iraqi army melts away, thousands of volunteers have arrived from predominantly Shiite areas in Baghdad and south of Baghdad. Highly motivated and heavily armed, these Shiite fighters may give pause to the ISIS Sunnis. If not, then two armies with great firepower will face off along the areas outside of Baghdad, and we see not just a divided Iraq, but a country up-ended by the kind of civil war still unresolved in neighboring Syria.

Though the President has said repeatedly he does not to intend to send U.S. forces back into Iraq or into combat situations, he deployed about 300 U.S. Special Forces personnel to Baghdad this past week. Among their various missions will be a determination if more American soldiers or officers are needed.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Iraq’s Maliki: Under Pressure; Thursday Review; June 21, 2014.