Islamist militants’ conquest of Iraq’s city of Mosul on Tuesday not only poses a challenge to Iraq’s weak central government. It carries implications for the civil war in neighboring Syria, if not the whole region.
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a Sunni extremist group that claims affiliation with Al Qaeda but is not actually recognized by the international terrorist organization, took Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, seemingly without much army resistance. They looted banks and military equipment and freed several thousands of prisoners, many of whom are rumored to be former Al Qaeda militants sure to rejoin the ranks of the insurgency.
Besides Mosul, militants control the area around Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar Province which was the hotbed of the Sunni insurgency against the Western occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011.
Andreas Krieg, a lecturer in King’s College London’s Defense Studies Department, writes at the Kings of War blog that the capture of Mosul gives the insurgents a new operational platform that is strategically well positioned vis-à-vis both the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the northern areas of Syria it already controls.
Access to oil pipelines, refineries, the control of water ways (particularly the vital Tigris corridor) and roads connecting the oil rich north with the regional capital, makes Mosul an important hub for any future military operation against targets in Syria, Kurdistan or the south of Iraq.
Moreover, he judges by the spoils of war that were paraded on social media following Mosul’s fall that ISIS was able to seize artillery pieces, personnel carriers and small arms that are likely to be of major benefit to the group in its war against the forces that are loyal Syria’s president Bashar Assad.
Indeed, Krieg suggests that despite some recent gains for Assad’s forces in the west of Syria, the civil war — now in its fourth year — may end up in stalemate and produce a rough division of the country between a north controlled by Islamists and a south that remains in the hands of the regime.
If ISIS consolidates its position around Mosul, that Islamist north of Syria could conceivably merge with the west of Iraq to form a new polity in opposition to the Shia governments in Baghdad as well as Damascus — both of which are allied to Iran.
The Atlantic Sentinel reported as early as 2011 that this could be the aim of Arab Gulf backers of the Syrian uprising, noting that especially Iran’s nemesis Saudi Arabia would probably welcome the emergence of a Sunni majority state in the heart of the Arab world.
Such a polity could encompass Syria’s Euphrates river valley, roughly corresponding with the southeastern Deir ez-Zor Governorate, and Iraq’s central Anbar Province. Both are overwhelmingly Sunni and home to more than a couple of million people.
This looks to be ISIS’ aim but Krieg cautions that the movement lacks the popular support it needs to either carry out such a scheme or be successful in the long term.
The situation today is widely different from the mid-2000s when Al Qaeda in Iraq and later the Islamic State of Iraq were committing to the widely popular struggle against “Western crusaders” in Anbar and beyond. ISIS are barely celebrated as liberators, neither in Iraq nor in Syria. Unlike other Islamist organizations operating in the Levant, ISIS is generally perceived as a foreign organization staffed with foreign mujahideen.
But that does not appear to stop it from making gains on the battlefield.