WASHINGTON, June 12, 2014 — Iraq is crumbling along all too predictable fault lines.
The fall of Iraq did not happen suddenly or without warning. Instead, it came with road signs and flashing red lights.
The sectarian tensions in the country have imploded, creating an atmosphere where a Sunni militant group so radical that even al-Qaeda has disavowed it, The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is taking over major cities and marching toward the capital.
ISIS took the major city of Mosul yesterday, Tikrit the day before, and it was already holding Fallujah. Victorious rebels are now heading toward the capital as the government reports the military has collapsed, with soldiers deserting to the North.
Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city and is a major supply route. It allows easy access from Iraq to Syria, the second front where ISIS is making major gains. The ability of ISIS to take this critically important city suggests the government has little ability to stop its advance.
ISIS is an offshoot of al-Qaeda that spun off from al-Qaeda in Iraq. The U.S. effort in Iraq largely flushed them out of the country, but they fled to Syria where they increased their strength and established a major presence. The group contains radical fighters from across the Middle East and North Africa as well as Chechens, Turks and other Islamists.
The goal of ISIS, like that of al-Qaeda, is to establish an Islamic state across the region.
When ISIS takes territory, in Iraq or in Syria, its first act is to establish Sharia law.
The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been called the world’s most dangerous man and the new bin Laden, or at least the true heir of Osama bin Laden. Baghdadi is notoriously ruthless and virulently anti-American. He is also an expert military strategist. He is not concerned with the expulsion of ISIS from al-Qaeda, nor does he appear interested in aligning with other groups. He has put together a strong, successful organization that does not need the backing of other militant groups in the region.
Baghdadi has exploded onto the world’s stage with major successes which will almost certainly attract the admiration of other militants. His gains will increase his recruiting, adding fighters to his already-strong force.
Unlike official bin Laden heir Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, head of al-Qaeda, Baghdadi is charismatic and active. Zawahiri is rarely seen in public and makes few public statements. He also has not taken over three Iraqi cities or gained territory in Syria.
Baghdadi also carries extra authority as someone who claims to be a direct descendant of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
Yet none of this is really new. Iraq has been telegraphing its own demise for several years. Since the U.S. left the country, numerous experts have predicted that Iraq was headed toward violence and instability.
The major divisions in Iraq, primarily between the ruling Shiites and the minority Sunni’s, created the atmosphere that allowed ISIS to excel. Iraq has been rocked by violence by one group followed by retaliatory violence from the other group for more than a year.
The government of Nour al-Maliki, who was recently re-elected, has done little to calm tensions and has even inflamed the situation. In 2011, Maliki ordered the arrest of his vice president, the highest ranking Sunni in the government, who then fled to the Kurdish controlled north.
Even ISIS has boldly displayed its intentions and its successes. It has not moved stealthily, but has rather proclaimed its each and every move.
The rebels took Fallujah in May, and have held the city despite government efforts to wrest it from their control. It has mounted high-profile attacks along the Arab-Kurdish line in Northern Iraq, encouraging tensions between the government and the Kurds, while at the same time exploding major bombs in Baghdad. On June 5, the group attempted to take the City of Samarra, near a sacred Shiite shrine whose bombing in 2006 sparked a major war.
Americans are evacuating all personnel from Iraq.
With the Iraqi military essentially non-existent, and no foreign country currently rushing to rescue Iraq, there is little to stop the march of ISIS throughout Iraq.
The ISIS victory is destabilizing not only for Iraq but also for the region and, potentially, the rest of the world. The next logical step is Syria, where ISIS already has established a presence. Expect a major inflow of militants into the territory controlled by ISIS as its success draws more supporters.
For non-Sunni groups, the impact is likely to be devastating. The group is likely to commit massive human rights abuses against all non-Sunni groups, and potentially against Sunni’s who oppose its strict brand of the religion.
The apparent ISIS victory has implications beyond Iraq and Syria. If ISIS is allowed to control territory, it almost certainly will create a safehaven for militants, who will be able to train and plan operations against their targets, including the United States.
If allowed to remain, ISIS could destabilize Iraq, the region, and beyond.
But so far, it seems there are few options for outside assistance, or domestic ability to remove the militants, leaving Iraq with an uncertain future.