As Twitter photos from jihadi fighters showed fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) driving tanks through a newly cut hole in the Iraq-Syria border, their comrades were continuing to make gains in an offensive in Iraq that launched over a week ago.
While ISIS has steadily grown in power and assets over the past year, this month's offensive caught the Iraqi and Syrian governments off guard. A now embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; both have been bolstered by patronage and military support from Iran. With Iran now drawn into the fight to preserve Maliki's government, the ISIS onslaught has significant consequences for all three countries, as well as their ally in Hezbollah.
To weigh in on the crisis we spoke to Aram Nerguizian, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and the director of the Brookings Intelligence Project; Ted Karasik, director of research at the Dubai think tank Inegma; and Kirk Sowell, Iraq analyst and founder of the consultancy Uticensis Risk.
Syria Deeply: How is the current situation in Iraq impacting the conflict in Syria? What will happen over the next few months?
Ted Karasik: The fight in Iraq is drawing attention away from what's happening in Syria because everyone is focused on the rapid move by ISIS to capture as much territory as they can. This event supercedes what has been happening in Syria.
Bruce Riedel: Baghdad is a primarily Shia city, and the Iraqi army, or what's left of it, and the Shia militias and Iranian revolutionary guards are probably going to ensure that Baghdad doesn't fall to ISIS. That doesn't mean that there won't be a lot of violence in Baghdad – there is every day – but I don't think the capital is likely to fall.
That means I think we're going to end up for the foreseeable future with what I call the two and a half state solution. There will be a Kurdish state in the north, which is well-run and well-ordered and has about a quarter of Iraq's oil reserves and is closely aligned with Turkey. There will be a Shia state in the south, which has three-quarters of the oil reserves and will be even more closely tied to Iran than it has been up until now, and to some extent a client state of the Iranians.
And then there'll be a half-state that straddles the Syrian-Iraqi border that might not even have most of the structures of the state, it will be more like a Wild West no-man's land than anything else. And it will have no oil and very little infrastructure, but it will be a breeding space for terrorists for Syria and Iraq, the region as a whole, and Europe and the U.S. That's probably what this is going to look like three months from now.
Aram Nerguizian: The highly unrealistic doomsday scenario everyone thinks about is that you have a group that's conducting warfare effectively on two fronts and expanding westward trying to contend both with other opposition factions and the regime, while also pushing east and south and dealing with Maliki and the Iraqi regime. It's a fun hypothetical model that doesn't bear any reality.
The dynamics driving this in Iraq are fundamentally indigenous to Iraqi domestic politics. This is still a group that within Syria has a broad array of factions aligned against it. ISIS is not an organization that's going to galvanize Assad ad-hoc partnerships with opposition groups in Syria. But you have enough of an array of players that have an interest in stifling the development of ISIS, minimizing its influence, so I don't see this as an immediate threat [to the balance of power in Syria.]
Kirk Sowell: ISIS has been moving weapons and equipment from Mosul back to Syria. As far as ISIS is concerned, it's going to weaken them in the long term. They're engaging in direct fighting with the Iraqi army, and the Iraqi army is not going to lose these fights. In Tal Afar this week, ISIS was initially able to gain some ground there because it's out in the west, harder to resupply. But after the government sent more units out, they were able to regain the initiative. ISIS has around 10,000 fighters, and the Iraqi army still has 200,000. ISIS doesn't have an unlimited supply of personnel, so these direct fights – like in Tal Afar – just drain them.
Syria has a much greater impact on Iraq than Iraq has on Syria. Having this rear base in Raqqa has been great for ISIS – it's what allowed them to organize and recruit and train their fighters. If you take parts of Anbar and Nineveh, in Iraq, and Deir Ezzor and Raqqa and parts of Hassakeh, in Syria, that's the so-called Islamic state. But these aren't areas they totally control, and once Baghdad sends high-quality [military] units up to Mosul, ISIS is not going to be able to hold its ground or form an administration or anything like that.
Syria Deeply: If ISIS is able to topple Maliki, what would that mean for Assad?
Ted Karasik: Maliki's fight for maintaining his government is significant in the fact that it's a Shiite government, and in Syria, there is an Alawite government, which is a branch of Shiism. If ISIS continues with these successes and is able to oust Maliki, it will probably see another opportunity to push hard against Assad. ISIS would feel emboldened to go back to Syria – and it would better know what to do there in order to topple Assad, because of lessons learned in Iraq.
Syria Deeply: How does Assad see what's been happening in Iraq?
Riedel: The Assad regime sees [the ISIS offensive] as the perfect bogeyman that undermines the legitimate opposition. Assad now nicely has those rebels caught in a vice between him and his Iranian allies and associates like Hezbollah, and on the other side, ISIS. So he's probably quite comfortable with what's happened [in the last two weeks].
Karasik: The only scenario I see is something discussed a while ago about the "red-line" chemical weapons issue, where the U.S. and its allies were planning to bomb Syrian military infrastructure in surgical strikes. But part of the plan was to go after ISIS at that time, and they never did. If they had done so, we might not be facing this situation today. Not a lot of people realized that part of the air plan was to go after ISIS at the same time.
Nerguizian: The rapid advance does have certain immediate implications, but they're not static or easy to determine. Right now, if you did not have stable Assad control over western Syria – and it is right now, it's a consolidated structure from Deraa up to Latakia with minor, symbolically important gains like this weekend's retaking of Kessab – you'd have a lot more concern within the Assad regime and their interest groups about what the ISIS offensive means.
ISIS is still useful in terms of making the case that terrorism is the byproduct of policies against the Assad regime – that ungoverned spaces have emerged, largely thanks to this idea that you can just conduct dramatic policy shifts in places like Syria and nothing will happen. So it does play in to the Assad regime's narrative that it's either them or the terrorists.
But at the same time you're going to keep seeing Assad benefit from an indirect relationship with these groups that are largely transactional. So irrespective of the intervention by ISIS more aggressively in Iraq, you're going to keep seeing Assad buying oil from fields controlled by ISIS [in eastern Syria]. ISIS has a similar view – for them, the focus is on consolidating the space between Syria and Iraq where the Assad regime doesn't have any immediate pressure to expand its control. They're not looking to take back Raqqa, they're not really looking to make a push into Deir Ezzor. They realize that maintaining effective control over the parts of Syria that matter to the regime are far more important. And ISIS knows this. ISIS in the short term is happy to ignore Assad for as long as possible.
If Assad really does consolidate his hold on the west up to Aleppo, and he feels that there's enough space and maneuverability that he can do more, there's always [pressure] to do that. This isn't something that would map out until the end of the year.
Syria Deeply: Is there any outside power that could now step in and contain the ISIS state?
Riedel: The Maliki government is most likely to try and recover from Mosul, and that will require rebuilding an Iraqi army, which is not likely to happen overnight. There's really no outside power that wants to take on the challenge of getting rid of the ISIS emirate in the middle. Turkey is probably the one that's most capable – and closest by – but after three years of war in Syria, the Turks have made it clear that they don't want to get sucked into what they see as a quagmire.
Karasik: The only thing that's going to stop them is trying to wipe them out, and Maliki has said that the real action will have to be done by the U.S. and/or Iran. That could change what's happening in Syria, too, because if the U.S. and Iran are cooperating on Iraq, then maybe they can find some kind of common accommodation on Syria.
I'm sure a lot of the other [rebel] groups in Syria are watching ISIS's progress – including Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army. The groups on the ground that are against Assad's regime are going to see the success ISIS is having, and it might give them a spark to try and up their game a little bit and see how they can make progress.
Syria Deeply: How would involvement in Iraq impact Iran's support of the Syrian regime?
Riedel: The Assad government would see this as creating a string of Shia pearls – Hezbollah and Assad in a rump Syria, and Maliki in a rump Iraq. The interesting question is, How expensive it is going to be to maintain three client states for Tehran over the long term? The Syrian state doesn't produce any income, so it's a net loss. Lebanon may be not that much of a burden, and the Iraqi state should theoretically be able to pay for itself with all that oil. But that depends on whether the parts work. Iran could find itself in a position where it's fighting off an awful lot to pay for.
Karasik: Iran has been the Syrian government's number one supporter, and Tehran has kept Assad in power because it put so much effort into supporting the Syrian military with Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the ground and also moral and financial support. For Iran, and for Syria, this is an important moment that will test the future of their relationship.
Nerguizian: Iran is literally [making] an attempt at changing the balance of power in Iraq in a way that undermines what Iran views as a hegemonic interest. For better or worse, Baghdad and eastern Iraq, at a minimum – to say nothing of the greater Levant – they all fall into what the Iranians view as the "near abroad" in their sphere of influence. They're not going to allow for a scenario where somehow Baghdad is going to dramatically fall into the hands of ISIS and ... there comes a point where the advance becomes more difficult or less sustainable.
ISIS is not a modern military machine, and granted, the Iraqi government and forces are not the definition of an effective military force. But what you do see, whether it's Syria or Iraq, is that forces that are fighting this, especially when the scale is broadly existential or the outcome guarantees a real loss of control, tend to harden pretty quickly – especially in areas that matter. So if you have commanders that were ineffective, they won't have a leading role to play in fighting back against ISIS. This is similar to the Syrian military, where you've seen a weeding out of elements that are not loyal enough, or loyal but not capable, or who have just flipped sides.