ISIL’s year of terror in Iraq and Syria

The militant group has managed to thrive, despite opposition from a coalition of countries, writes Florian Neuhof.

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter launches mortar shells towards ISIL positions on September 15, 2014. Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
Powered by automated translation

ERBIL // A year after ISIL fighters surged across the Syrian border to occupy vast swathes of Iraq, little headway has been made in beating back the insurgents. The group’s presence is only increasing the already significant tensions that threaten to break the country apart.

The militants are entrenched in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and last month bounced back from the loss of the city of Tikrit by expelling Iraqi security forces from Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.

Feared for the speed of its movements, the ability to exploit the weaknesses of its opponents and its contempt for life, ISIL has over the past 12 months managed to thrive in Iraq, inflicting a series of crushing defeats on its enemies in the process.

Within days of pouring into Iraq, it stunned the world by routing the four Iraqi army division stationed in Mosul in a matter of hours. It followed up its victory with the execution of thousands of Shiite prisoners captured when they tried to slip out of the city, establishing a reputation of ideologically driven bloodthirst that has since become a grim trademark of the group.

Meeting little opposition, ISIL soon controlled around a third of Iraq, its rule extending across most of the Sunni territories in the country’s west.

The militant group’s advance caused millions of Iraqis to flee their homes. According to the International Organisation for Migration, over three million people have now been displaced by the conflict. Last week, the UN issued a plea for more funding, warning that US$500 million (Dh1.84 billion) were needed to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq.

ISIL’s defeat in Tikrit last April gave rise to optimism that its fortunes were on the wane. But the group responded swiftly by launching an attack on Ramadi, which it had contested with the ISF since entering Iraq. Battered by a series of massive suicide bombings, and exhausted by months of fighting, the security forces retreated, dispelling any illusions that the Iraqi army had improved as a fighting force since its disastrous defeat in Mosul.

The latest setback came in spite of a 10 month long air campaign by the US and its allies, and efforts to retrain and re-equip the Iraqi army, which had lost vast amounts of war materiel in its early defeats to ISIL.

“The Iraqi security forces have been exhausted. They have suffered loss of weaponry — light, medium and heavy — and the leaders as well as the members have lost morale. Plus, there isn’t enough time for restructuring and reforming the security forces, as ISIL’s threat is on the rise,” said Dr Hisham Al Hashimi, an adviser to the Iraqi government.

The US reacted with resignation to the loss of Ramadi. The Americans spent around $25bn to train and equip the Iraqi army since disbanding it after the 2003 invasion, only to see it collapse without a fight in Mosul. But the US government saw little alternative to continuing its support to the Iraqis, and a further $1.6bn worth of equipment is now flowing into Iraq, while three new army divisions are being trained by US instructors.

Even so, the army is unlikely to be a potent force any time soon.

“I am very pessimistic in this regard about rebuilding the conventional security forces. They have suffered so many failures on the battlefield that they are severely degraded,” says Aymenn Al Tamimi, a fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Forum.

The collapse of the army has its roots in the reign of former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, who installed inept cronies in the military leadership, and allowed corruption to deprive the army of many of its resources. Mr Al Maliki also made the army a much more sectarian force by purging it of many of it Sunni commanders, while at the same time stoking sectarian tensions by increasingly excluding the Sunni minority from the political process.

“The Maliki government certainly contributed to the rise of ISIS, it failed to heed the warnings and Maliki is personally responsible for that,” says Sajad Jiyad, an independent Iraq analyst.

The failure of the predominantly Shiite Iraqi army to hold the largely Sunni city of Mosul set the precedent for the fight against ISIL in the following year. The militants thrived in the Sunni provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, but failed to penetrate the largely Shiite territories around Baghdad, or the oil heartlands in the south.

With the army faltering, Shiite militia groups known as the Popular Mobilisation Units — or Hashd Al Shaabi — took up the fight against ISIL. Many of these groups are receiving help from Iran, giving Tehran increased influence in Baghdad. Together with the armed forces of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in the North, the Hashd have held ISIL at bay.

An overtly Shiite force will struggle to expel ISIL from the Sunni provinces, yet so far Iraq’s new prime minister Haider Al Abadi has done little to make good on his pledges to support Sunni tribal fighters willing to take up arms against ISIL.

Al Qaeda’s insurgency in Anbar was put down in 2006 when the US managed to convince the Sunni tribes to turn their guns on the militants, but according to Mr Al Hashimi only 1,200 out of roughly 36,000 Sunni volunteers have been armed by the government.

The government views the Sunni tribes with suspicion, afraid that the weapons it delivers will be used against them.

With the front lines roughly correlating with the main ethnic and religious divisions in Iraq, the conflict has further stoked tensions between the various groups.

Reports of atrocities committed on Sunni residents of Tikrit by Shiite militias could foreshadow further sectarian violence, as Iran-backed Hashd units are moving into Anbar to prepare to retake Ramadi.

A February Human Rights Watch report alleges that Kurdish Peshmerga forces have prevented thousands of Arabs from returning to areas disputed between the KRG and Baghdad. The Peshmerga have also occupied Kirkuk, the hub of oil production in the north which they refuse to hand over to the central government until a referendum on the future status of the city has been held.

In a bid to create a buffer zone protecting Baghdad and cities like Karbala and Samarra, Shiite militia are reportedly preventing Sunni inhabitants from returning to their homes.

“Everyone is involved in drawing the borders based in their own identity. Believing these areas are not divided yet is just denying the facts on the ground. It is a demographic change happening quietly,” says Mr Al Hashimi.

As the central government is increasingly losing control of the country, some say a more federalist system is required to keep the country from falling apart.

“I believe the best thing for Iraq would be to have a genuine national reconciliation act. A political process that is truly representative, that helps the communities feel that they are better off being part of it, that excludes no community,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir, the KRG’s minister of foreign relations.

The Kurds were granted wide-ranging autonomy in the aftermath of the Second Gulf War, and have proven one of Baghdad’s most reliable partners in the fight against ISIL.

Its relative independence may not be enough to keep the KRG from breaking away. Kurdish president Masoud Barzani during a recent visit to Washington claimed that being part of Iraq was voluntary, not mandatory, and preparations for a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan have already begun.

Nevertheless, granting political rights and representation to groups that have long been disenfranchised is Baghdad’s best hope of holding the country together.