WASHINGTON, June 17, 2014 — ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is on the move. In January they were reported to be in control of parts of Fallujah, and over the last week they have taken Mosul and Takrit. Their rapid advance appears to be part of a campaign to take Baghdad. Once they take Baghdad and topple the existing government, they will establish an Islamist state, and make war on their neighbors.
The United States is providing lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, which includes ISIS. This has allowed ISIS to cement its position in Syria and make gains in Iraq. Until recently, that meant slow, painstaking fighting as ISIS moved across western and northern Iraq like a glacier. While the world was focusing on Syria, Ukraine and Crimea, no one was paying attention to the danger posed by ISIS to regional stability.
Then last week ISIS hit Takrit, Mosul, and on Sunday they captured Tal Afar.
That was a mistake.
By taking so many key sites in Iraq so quickly, ISIS created a panic. Instead of consolidating their position in Mosul, they ambitiously moved on Takrit. Sensing a growing weakness in their enemy, they moved on Tal Afar. Thousands of people are fleeing the path of ISIS, screaming at the top of their lungs for help, and the world has heard them.
This is where ISIS made their mistake; they turned their quiet acquisition of territory during a time of headline hogging international events into headlines of their own. Before they captured Mosul and Takrit, Americans had almost forgotten that Fallujah had fallen earlier this year. They had almost forgotten that a radical Islamic group was gobbling up territory the U.S. fought so hard to pacify, and they almost forgot that radical Islam was still a problem.
When ISIS was operating in the shadow of the Ukrainian crisis, their actions seemed less important and went unnoticed. But now they have created refugees, thus creating a humanitarian crisis. They have executed soldiers and taken too much territory and created a military crisis. And most importantly, they have upset global markets by destabilizing an oil producing region even further.
In short, they messed up.
Had they stayed in Fallujah until the international atmosphere was conducive to a strike, they could still be flying relatively low under the radar.
Now the march of ISIS towards Baghdad has caught the attention of the international community and created a political situation in the United States. The name “ISIS” is all over the news. Because it was the Obama Administration which supplied lethal aid to the Syrian opposition forces — including ISIS — it is unlikely that President Obama wants to draw attention to this issue. But the rest of the country is already paying attention, which will force the issue around the world.
The people of Iraq are also proving to be an obstacle for ISIS. Reportedly thousands of Shiite Iraqis are joining militias and military units in an effort to stop ISIS. Groups like ISIS rely on the fear they spread through stories of their brutality to demoralize the opposition, but instead Iraqis are banding together to fight for their country.
But that is not their worst mistake. Sunni ISIS forgot about one pivotal Shiite player in the region.
ISIS represents the radical branch of Sunni Islam; they believe in the harsh application of Sharia law and the rise of the Islamic Caliphate from Iran to Morocco. This means destabilizing the region, disrupting economic markets, and war. Iran cannot have that. Iran cannot let Iraq fall to the hands of Sunni forces, leaving a powerful enemy on their expansive western frontier.
Iran will act. There is no love lost between Iraq and Iran, but if Iran can stave off a Sunni uprising and do what the United States could not — stabilize the region — Iraq would be pulled closer to Iran, and even worse, indebted. Iran is now sending in troops to fight ISIS. Iran will not be gentle; it will be brutal, it will not have the same rules of engagement that the United States and its allies do. The troops they are sending, the Revolutionary Guard, are effective in the field of counterinsurgency.
ISIS brought all of this down on themselves. They went too far too quickly. They attracted too much international attention by operating without a larger headline story to shield their movements. They underestimated the willingness of Iran to involve itself in Iraq and to clean up after the United States. ISIS’ eagerness to topple the government in Baghdad and to begin building the foundation for the new caliphate will be their undoing.
If Iran joins the fight against them, and the people of Iraq meet the challenge, ISIS will not take, much less hold, Baghdad.
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