While recent victories in western Iraq by jihadists from the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are not about to lead to the downfall of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, the unexpected success of these Sunni fighters is having a ripple effect across the region, imperilling several other areas.
“Jihadis are not on the verge of storming Baghdad,” concludes a report this week from the International Crisis Group. ISIL’s rapid gains of the past two weeks were made against hollowed-out state structures, “weakened by accumulated Sunni grievances,” the ICG said. There was no will to fight.
ISIL’s advance will likely stop, the report asserts, when it encounters a hard obstacle such as “Iran-backed Shiite militias or a Shiite-dominated army fighting on home ground,” as is the case in the capital.
A range of experts on the Middle East say that the repercussions of the Sunni militants’ victories in Iraq will be felt beyond the borders: in Syria, where an emboldened ISIL might attack Damascus; in Jordan, which shares a long border with Iraq and is fragile enough to be destabilized; and in Israel, which will act against any ISIL power-grab in neighbouring Jordan.
At most, ISIL fighters number no more than 10,000, notes Yoram Schweitzer, a specialist in low-intensity warfare at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel. This is “not sufficient to capture and manage” Baghdad, which the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “has a fundamental interest to protect.”
Indeed, should Shia areas of central, eastern and southern Iraq be put at risk, Iran would move in forces from its Revolutionary Guard, says Mr. Schweitzer.
Kobi Michael and Udi Dekel, senior research fellows at the INSS, also say Baghdad for now is not the biggest concern. The major gain for ISIL from its advances in Iraq has been in Syria where its dominant position had been eroded by rival opposition forces such as the Nusra Front, a group still linked to al-Qaeda. This force had pushed ISIL into the northeast corner of Syria, and even continues to control some border crossings to Iraq.
Now, however, armed with money seized from Iraqi banks and captured U.S. weapons including anti-tank missiles and armoured vehicles, ISIL can start to push back.
It is “only a matter of time” before the group launches an attack on Damascus, say the two Israelis in a report published Tuesday.
And that is not the only Arab capital in danger.
“If the recent events spill over into Jordan and ISIL forms strongholds in the Hashemite kingdom … Jordan is liable to be engulfed in chaos with the survival of the kingdom threatened,” say Mr. Michael and Mr. Dekel. Already it is being threatened by a growing number of jihadist cells “infiltrating the state under the guise of refugees.”
Saudi Arabia has announced that if necessary it would dispatch tanks to defend Jordan. But that won’t be enough to stop the advance of an insidious force such as ISIL. Nor can Jordan count on Washington to do the right thing in time, according to the Israeli researchers.
“Jordan needs a clear strategic military ally,” they say. And “although it cannot admit it openly, its only practical strategic military ally is apparently Israel.”
Indeed, the last thing Israel wants is a jihadist group such as ISIL camped on the border across the Jordan River, and it will do whatever it must to keep Jordan free of these forces.
To deal with all this will take more than just some U.S. aerial attacks on ISIL positions in Iraq, as some now advocate. There must be support provided in several places, analysts say.
In Jordan, say Mr. Michael and Mr. Dekel, there needs to be a joint U.S.-European effort to strengthen the country economically and militarily. There also must be help in providing intelligence and humanitarian aid to deal with massive numbers of refugees.
In Syria, there needs to be real assistance for moderate opposition forces, says Mr. Schweitzer, to ensure that ISIL doesn’t take the capital. And in Iraq, says Dennis Ross, counsellor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the United States must push Mr. al-Maliki to buy into the notion that “the central government must give Sunnis and Kurds a sense of inclusion and a stake in working with Baghdad and the military.”
While Mr. al-Maliki is largely to blame for Sunni disenchantment in Iraq, removing him, as some in the U.S. Congress suggest, may not be the answer. Mr. al-Maliki’s fate “will be decided behind closed doors by the Shia,” says Michael Knights, Iraq specialist at the Washington Institute. And that’s as it should be. You need unity, he says, among Iraq’s majority ethnic group at a time like this.