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June 13, 2014
The United States pulled its remaining troops out from Iraq two and a half years ago, ending a military occupation that lasted almost a decade. The civil war in Syria has become the strategic driver shaping the security dynamics across the Levant, and has breathed new life into militancy in Iraq, rejuvenating the confidence, resources, and cause of Sunni insurgents. This week, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had taken over the city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, sending shockwaves throughout Iraq and the region.

Earlier this year, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took over major parts of Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar province, causing a security crisis that remains ongoing today. Their tactics reflect that of an organized paramilitary group, rather than a network of terrorist cells, as it continues to prove time and again to retain the capability in pulling off high-profile and complex operations. Last summer, ISIS attacked the fortified Abu Ghraib prison in a coordinated operation, resulting in the escape of 500-1,000 militants. The operation not only showcased the extent of group’s growing sophistication, it also infused new fighters into ISIS that were once taken off the battlefield. In Mosul, reports indicate that ISIS had freed between 1,000-2,000 prisoners, further bolstering the group’s membership with battle-hardened militants. With growing strength in numbers, ISIS may feel more confident in pushing their presence southward, into Shiite-held territories.

There is very little incentive for Sunni security institutions to remain intact in the face of an al-Qaeda threat at one end and a hardline Shiite government on the other. Under those conditions, the desertion of security posts becomes the default behavior. Hence, the wholesale abandonment of Iraqi army-held posts that occurred in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul can certainly be expected to happen across the Sunni-dominated provinces. So long as there is lack of genuine reconciliation and integration in Iraq, crises of confidence will fester within the Sunni security establishment, leaving weak institutions prone to unraveling.

While the United States appears willing to consider all options, Washington ought to understand that ISIS is not a problem that can be fixed by plunging more arms and military resources into the hands of regimes. This approach tends to add more fuel to the fire, as it has done so in the past. The containment of ISIS requires the cooperation of various parts of the state and society—from national, provincial, and local to political, religious, and tribal. Iraq cannot achieve such coordination if the United States is perceived as supporting one political faction over another, which the policies of security-assistance tends to perpetuate in Iraq.

It is difficult to predict how the events unfolding in Mosul and elsewhere will affect the political dynamics in forming the next government in Baghdad. Given that ISIS represents a threat to Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, there appears to be a degree of incentive to form a national unity government among Iraq’s political factions. Nevertheless, despite the rare alignment of the security interests of all three communal sects, parochial political interests are likely to reign supreme in Iraq. Over time, the greater incentive will be for Iraq’s leaders to exploit the crisis and seek to gain advantage against their political opponents. No other dynamic is more important for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his rivals. 

Like Fallujah and Ramadi, the fall of Mosul will receive various interpretations across the political landscape. For those opposing a third term for Maliki, it is his incompetence and belligerent behavior that is at fault. However, Maliki is likely to build on his narrative that a Shiite strongman is necessary in these perilous times, and only he can protect the Shiites from a Sunni militant threat spilling over from Syria’s civil war. Moreover, there is the prospect that how the security crisis is dealt with will be folded into the deal-making process in forming the next government. At this point, it is implausible to separate security from politics, as the security environment is bound to influence, and perhaps, realign political interests in shaping the government formation process. 

But aside from the effect of the current crisis on Iraqi politics, what is most concerning for the stability and unity of Iraq are the changing facts on the ground. Iraq is experiencing chaos, but for many political actors, it is only chaos that can open certain doors. For instance, amid the abandonment of Sunni security forces, Kurdish forces have now moved in and secured areas deemed “disputed territories,” including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk—a prize that has been claimed by multiple sides.

While Iran deems ISIS a threatening entity toward all Shiites in the region, the Sunni group’s rise has invited greater Iranian influence to creep into Iraq’s security and political establishment. Apart from Baghdad’s likely increased reliance on Tehran’s assistance, the scope and strength of Iranian-backed Shiite militias is most likely to grow inside Iraq. Indeed, the rationale for such militias surviving and thriving is now clearer today than at any time since the departure of the US military.

While clashes between Sunni and Shiite insurgents are likely to intensify in Iraq, the consequences of a renewed civil war expand beyond sectarianism and balance-of-power politics. From new humanitarian and refugee crises to the increased risk of transnational terrorism spewing from the conflict, the growing erosion of the state and the coupling of militancy and ungoverned territory will lead to the strengthening and proliferation of non-state Sunni and Shiite actors operating in Iraq. After the fall of Mosul, the next phase of the crisis could possibly find its way to Baghdad.

Ramzy Mardini is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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