So I think they probably understand that the U.S. will take some action – and they're probably concerned by reports that there are armed drones flying above Iraq and that there are significant naval assets in the region and increased intelligence cooperation – but I don't think that they are losing sleep over a massive U.S. military bulldozer coming in. And that factors significantly into their calculus.
Syria Deeply: Right now, which foreign power is of the biggest worry to ISIS?
Levitt: I don't know if its fair to say biggest. They don't want to see Iran coming in in a huge way. And the Iranians are weary of coming in in a huge way, because they don't want to make this into a sectarian conflict. The government of Iran has been clear that they don't see this as a sectarian conflict. Iran does not want Iraq to break up. They want a unified Iraq that is dominated by Shia that are close to Iran.
I think that in some way [ISIS] is scared of the U.S. more, theoretically [based on past U.S. involvement in Iraq], but they don't think it's likely that the U.S. would, under its current leadership, be likely to engage [in a major way]. They're not happy about the U.S. sending small numbers of forces to guard the embassy, or advisers, but it's not going to make a difference for them.
Syria Deeply: Iran is reportedly scrambling forces to defend Baghdad. How important to ISIS is Baghdad at this time?
Levitt: Ultimately it's a prize, but it's a majority Shia city, it's well defended, it's clearly a red line for the international community, and ISIS has got plenty to do elsewhere in the country, right up to Baghdad's front step. You never know with a group like ISIS, which puts ideology before tactics and strategy. And so you could have some effort to do something in Baghdad before ISIS is really ready. But I don't think that in the immediate future, Baghdad is all that critical to them.
This article originally appeared on Syria Deeply.