On Monday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Anne Patterson declared in a speech at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum held in Doha, Qatar that the U.S. will work hard with its allies to “contain and roll back the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s aspirations to create a terrorist state in western Iraq and eastern Syria.” On Tuesday, ISIS stunned the U.S., Iraq and the world when its forces overwhelmed Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The audacious assault and the embarrassing rout of the Iraqi defenses were breathtaking in their swiftness and efficiency, suggesting a well-coordinated attack and possible collusion of some of the defenders of the city who melted away, leaving behind their weapons.
The fall of Mosul will reverberate throughout the region because it is emblematic of many of its problems; the fraying of the Arab state along sectarian, ethnic, and regional lines, the emergence of powerful non-state actors, and the abject failure of the military-politico leaderships and elites that controlled many states since formal independence to deliver on promises of economic development and political empowerment.
Small time politician, big time challenges
It is difficult to comprehend how this viscous and relatively new terrorist group, the rejects of al-Qaeda, would seize a large urban center in a country of 34 million people with significant resources. But it seems that the discriminatory policies of the Nouri Kamal al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad in favor of the Shiite majority at the expense of the disenfranchised Sunni minority has alienated the local population to the point that they are either joining or passively accepting the control of these modern day Mongol invaders.
It is difficult to comprehend how this vicious and relatively new terrorist group, the rejects of al-Qaeda, would seize a large urban center, Mosul.Hisham Melhem
The fall of Mosul, exposed the brittleness of Iraq as a nation-state, the frailty of the political structure that emerged in Baghdad following the American invasion, and the inability of Iraq’s disparate political, ethnic and religious components to even agree on the fundamental principles that should bind them together in a unitary state. One could argue that even a truly representative leadership in Baghdad would find it daunting to rebuild a shattered country that has been in a state of war since Saddam Hussein’s fatal decision to invade Iran in 1980.
However, the die was cast with the election of Maliki. The failure of this small time and stubborn politician who grew up operating in secret cells underground to overcome his legendary paranoia and distrust of the Sunnis, and to build a viable political coalition to address Iraq’s huge challenges, and his embrace of a Shiite agenda, which allowed Iran to emerge as the most influential outside player in Iraq, ensured that the country was courting disaster.
The sudden collapse of the Iraqi army in the north exposed a huge intelligence failure on the part of both the Iraqi and the U.S. governments. In recent weeks and months ISIS was deploying and moving relatively large numbers of fighters in both Syria and Iraq. Over the last year they have executed a well-planned campaign to free thousands of prisoners (and potential recruits) from Iraq’s prisons, including the infamous Abu-Ghraib, where they used more than 150 vehicles. The immediate objective was to free former Iraqi army officers who fought U.S. forces to exploit their tactical skills. The government’s reaction was week and ineffective. Ever more exposed and vulnerable, the beleaguered al-Maliki asked the U.S. to directly bomb ISIS’s positions, but, not surprisingly, the Obama administration turned him down. President Obama was not about to order a limited attack that will gradually drag him into another Middle Eastern military adventure, according to people who are aware of internal deliberations.
Two days after ISIS took over Mosul, Kurdish forces, exploiting the chaos convulsing the country descended from their autonomous region to seize control of the coveted strategic northern oil city of Kirkuk, which lies at the heart of a long dispute between Arabs and Kurds, following the collapse of government defenses. With Kirkuk firmly in Kurdish hands, the disintegration of Iraq as unitary state is no longer a distant possibility. The Kurds, many of whom consider Kirkuk their “Jerusalem” will not give up this prize without a fight. The region, with its considerable oil resources will give the Kurds of Iraq greater economic foundation for eventual secession, and the fulfillment of their dream of independent Kurdistan.
The fall of Mosul to the most radical and brutal terrorist group operating in the region is a catastrophe by any measure. Whether ISIS’s occupation of this diverse and strategically and economically important city is temporary or not, it is a seminal event in Iraq’s tragic march towards possible disintegration. The black flags of ISIS fluttering on the ramparts of Mosul, after they were raised in Ramadi and Fallujah, cities were American marines fought their toughest battles since Vietnam a decade ago, signify the final collapse of America’s imperial project in Iraq, eleven years after President George Bush, driven by hubris and arrogance began his folly of establishing a Jeffersonian democracy in Mesopotamia.
There is very little that the U.S. could do at this late stage to save Iraqis from themselves or from their new Mongols. The return of American forces to the jaws of the beast is inconceivable. The use of air power alone, against a moving target like ISIS, whether in the desert or in urban areas will have a limited value at best. For the United States to watch Iraq’s breakup or its descent once again to the hell of sectarian civil war will be too much to fathom following the tremendous price paid by Americans and Iraqis in a decade of blood, sweat and tears.
The U.S. will continue to live in the shadows of Iraq for many years to come; just think of the financial burden of caring and providing physical and psychological support to those twenty something veterans who lost limbs in Iraq and were emotionally scarred by that awful nightmare. The collapse of Iraq’s defenses two years after the U.S. bid farewell to its misbegotten adventure will be felt in Afghanistan. The U.S. discovered the limits of its military power in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. There is no reason not to expect that the brittle political /military order the U.S. will leave behind in the theatre of its longest war ever, will not collapse like the one in Iraq.
America’s finest third world moment
The blame game has already begun. But it is a futile exercise now to say that President Obama could have prevented the collapse of Iraq had he put real pressure on al-Maliki to accept a residual American military presence in Iraq, given the advanced cancer that has been consuming Iraq’s body politics. From the beginning, America’s breathtaking attempt to remake Iraq in its own image was doomed to failure. Even now, nothing can be said to explain, with some certainty, the colossus blunder that led a great power to go to war in a distant land based on murky reasoning and with incredibly little dissent. One former official told a journalist that he will go to his grave not knowing exactly why we invaded Iraq. America’s failure in Iraq is jarring for many reasons, the least important of which is that many of its principle architects wrote books and gave lectures and made money and NONE of them genuinely expressed sorrows or were held legally, morally and politically accountable. That was America’s finest third world moment.
The fraying of the state
The sacking of Mosul by ISIS and its Sunni International was truly medieval in character albeit played on You Tube and recorded by the cameras of cell phones. People were fleeing by the tens of thousands, leaving behind the carcasses of burned out cars, ransacked businesses and government buildings. Banks were looted thoroughly; and if the press reports that ISIS pocketed $450 million are true, ISIS in one fell swoop has become the wealthiest terror group in the world.
The fate of Mosul revealed more than the expected failure of intelligence, lack of military preparedness or weak political organization; it exposed the fraying of the nation- state itself. This is a relatively new and dangerous phenomenon, although traditionally weak states such as Yemen and Lebanon have suffered from it.
Iraq is no longer functioning as a unitary state with its own ethos. Iraqis in the 21st century are not treated as citizens of one country, but rather as members of ethnic, and religious communities, and the U.S. gave its blessing to this terribly flawed arrangement. The success of ISIS in establishing its writ over large tracks of Iraqi territories shows the extent to which the control of the central government has waned in recent years. Iraq is one of many Arab states in such predicament. The governments of Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Sudan (this is also relatively true of the largest Arab state, Egypt which has yet to spread its writ fully in Sinai) do not exercise full authority over their territories, thereby ceding tracks of lands, and in some cases large swaths of territories to an assortment of non-state actors, terrorist groups and tribes with flags.
The rise of the non-state actors
The fraying of the state was caused in part by the rise of the equally dangerous non-state actors, capable of providing a wide array of services and protection to their rank and file and supporters in the territories they control. The most effective of these new actors is Hezbollah, a highly organized hybrid of a powerfully motivated military organization that exercises political violence and terror, as well as a disciplined political movement with a heavy dose of religious (Shiite) discourse, disguised mostly as ‘Resistance’ to Israel and the U.S.
Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria which relied on considerable Iranian logistical and military support played a major role in saving Assad’s regime from collapse. It is ironic and unprecedented that a non-state actor like Hezbollah would end up saving a regime in charge of a country of 23 million people.
The phenomenal speed with which ISIS emerged from the Jihad movement in Syria, to become the most powerful and terrifying terror group laying claim to the mantle of leadership of al-Qaeda likeminded groups at the expense of al-Qaeda Central, is the most audacious organizational change in the history of al-Qaeda. The scope of ISIS’s military operations in both Syria and Iraq is a testimony to its cruel efficiency, and growing financial resources. There are reports ISIS is trying to establish bases in Yemen, and it is suspected of spreading its tentacles to Lebanon.
The Mongols are coming
The fall of a city the size of Mosul in the hands of a jihadi/ takfiri organization driven by dark visions like ISIS, that crucifies and slit the throats of those who oppose it, and still dream of the establishment of a Muslim Caliphate is as stunning as it is historical. The brutal way ISIS treats Muslims who disagree with its words and deeds have become an integral part of its modus operandi. Its vicious persecution of Christians as we have seen recently in the Syrian city of Raqqa is reminiscent of the dark forces that have visited the region throughout history (or emerged from its soil) every once in a while. The sacking of Mosul, the fires that burned material structures and singed the souls, and the horror that griped the people of that old city, are a sure sign that the Mongols are coming.
This article was first published in Annahar on June 12, 2014.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem