With the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)’s capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, the militant group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has all but crowned himself the most powerful jihadi leader in the world today. ISIS now dominates a country-sized chunk of real estate spanning the Syria-Iraq border. It has established itself as the global standard-bearer of Sunni radicalism in the former country’s savage civil war, attracting jihadi fighters from around the world, including the US, with the potential to disseminate them again to other conflicts spanning the Middle East and North Africa. In the latter, it stands on the verge of dealing caretaker Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a body blow. Along with Mosul, it has taken Tikrit as well and launched attacks on the important city of Samarra. The proud, strong nation of American rhetoric when US troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011 has never seemed more a chimera.
Born as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in the early years of the Iraq War but later struggling there before morphing into ISIS when the Syrian civil war broke out, the group has achieved depths of brutality and extremism that have made even parent organisation al-Qaeda uneasy. It has been perhaps the most destructive force in Syria, feuding more with fellow rebels — the more moderate grouping of the Free Syrian Army and the other al-Qaeda linked group in the conflict, Jabhat al-Nusra — than with the ostensible enemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It has savagely repressed the areas under its control, meting out public executions and amputations — little wonder the fall of Mosul saw more than half-a-million refugees fleeing the city — leading to public denunciations by al-Qaeda, and, finally, a split between the two in February this year.
Now, al-Maliki must find a way to push back an enemy even al-Qaeda considers too extreme. Numerically, Iraqi security forces outnumber ISIS fighters by a massive margin; the latter cannot number more than 10,000. But that doesn’t tell the entire story. With Mosul’s fall, ISIS has achieved three things: it has captured a large stash of American arms and armaments, it has further burnished its jihadi reputation, which means more recruits, and it has further sapped the morale of security forces that were already demoralised enough by years of insurgent attacks and suicide bombings to have a desertion rate of 300 men a day.
If al-Maliki is to succeed, he must forge a broad alliance including the Kurdistan Regional Government — leaders of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq’s north that has long had an inimical relationship with Baghdad but will see ISIS as a greater threat — and the minority Sunni leaders that will be among the first targets of the militant group attempting to claim leadership of the Iraqi Sunnis. He must also do everything in his power to prevent a repolarisation of the country along sectarian lines; his call to the Shia populace to take up arms and form militias to combat ISIS could be dangerous in that context. And the US, morally responsible for the chaos in Iraq and with its broader interests in the Middle East under threat by ISIS’s growth, must help, both by nudging al-Maliki to make the political concessions necessary for getting the others on board and supplying funds and arms to Baghdad. It will not be an easy task given ISIS’s base in Syria — an even more intractable problem than Iraq — but the alternative is for the promise of ISIS’s name to become a de facto reality.