Friday, August 1, 2014

ISIL Splitting Iraq and Syria

And Quds Force Dilemma
The Independent carried a headline today that the Islamic State militants after conquering Sunni regions of Iraq are now consolidating their hold on northeastern Syria. That was apparently the intent of the ISIL from the very beginning: controlling predominantly Sunni region along the lower Euphrates in both Syria and Iraq, building their Islamic state and establishing their caliphate. One of their first major acts after capturing Mosul was to take out border barriers between the two countries. So it is not surprising that they are now paying as much attention to consolidating their hold on northeastern Syria as expanding their presence in western and northern Iraq.

Responses from Syria and Iraq have been similar: the Syrian government appears to be resigned at conceding the northeastern territories to the militants, trying to hold on western Syria. And doing so with the help of the Iranian Quds Force (QF) and Lebanese Hezbollah and an assortment of QF-led Shia militias, forming a unified front, the NDF, to augment the Syrian Army. The Iraqis seem to have established Samarra-Balad region as their first line of defense against the ISIL’s advance toward Baghdad, with an ultimate strategy of defending the capital and Shia south. And doing so with the help of the Quds Force and their Shia militias, but not as unified as the NDF.

The Islamic State has in effect already split the region into four parts: Assad’s western Syria; Islamic State’s northeastern Syria and western and northern Iraq; Baghdad and Shia south; and an independent Kurdistan. And they have done so in a lightening speed.

The Quds Force is the constant here; with Damascus and increasingly Baghdad relying on its leadership and what they bring to the table, organizing, funding, training, arming, and providing logistics to the Shia militia forces, to save the two governments.

But the Quds Force and General Soleimani are facing a dilemma: their successful NDF model in Syria is not working in Iraq. The Iraqi Shia militias ready to fight the ISIL across the country could not be united and have proven not as effective as required under the dire circumstances. And those Shia militias who could probably put up a serious and effective fight want to limit their presence at the battle space to defending Shia shrines. The former are the likes of Kataib Hezbollah, AHH, and Badr; the latter are the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, his Promised Day Brigade and Mahdi Army.

Soleimani should not have been surprised. The Iraqi Shia militias have their origins in post-2003 invasion, organized by the QF to fight U.S. forces in Iraq. Even then, they could not form a united front against the United States. The group rivalry and political and ideological differences are no less today. Iran might be forced to put boots on the ground if the situation in Baghdad deteriorates.

The Iraqi government however could be able to hold Baghdad, with QF/militias help, as well as their own counter-terrorism special forces. The government is also awash with cash, exporting crude oil from Basra and bringing in billions of dollars a month, able to pay for the defense of its shrunk territory, at least for some time to come. Assad wished he had the same amount of cash!

It’s going to be long summer and fall in the region. Four increasingly independent regions substituting for the remnants of two countries created 100 years ago.

Map: BBC/Institute for the Study of War (ISW)


Mark Pyruz said...


NDF and Shia militia models in Syria (both along lines of "Basij") didn't occur overnight. There was a period where organization and training took effect. We shouldn't expect different from Iraq.

With respect, Syria and Iraq were not nations 100 years ago. You're including periods of foreign demarkation and colonialism.

Also, with respect, Nader, Badr is not a post-2003 creation. Rather, it was formed during the Iran-Iraq War. Given, some other Shia militias prominence are considered post-2003.

In my view at this point in time, there will be no NEZAJA intervention. Odds are also against a heavy footprinted IRGC expeditionary force. Iraqi-Shia paramilitary manpower resources are not in short supply.

It should also be pointed out that in addition to IRGC-QF, there is another constant for the Syrian and Iraqi theaters of war, and that is the Gulf state support for armed groups destabilizing the nations of Iraq and Syria.

B.M.A said...

AND you slaughter good intentioned comments like non body's business!!.

Nader Uskowi said...

Thanks, Mark. Few points:

The countries known as Iraq and Syria were created by the British and French colonial powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI.

Badr was indeed a creation of Iran-Iraq war era. But there are some five or six Shia militias active in Syria and Iraq, most of them created in post-2003 invasion. During nearly a decade of U.S. presence in Iraq, those militias and Badr and Mahdi Army could not be united under a unified structure, the way NDF was created during the Syrian conflict within a year of the start of the Syrian conflict. And that was not due to lack of all-out attempts by the Quds Force, then and now.

NEZAJA or IRGC Ground Forces might never enter Iraq. But the Shia militias sans Mahdi Army/Promised Day Brigade do not appear to be a match to ISIL, and Mahdi Army is not willing to enter an openly Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq, aside from defending the shrines. Hence the dilemma faced by the QF.

Unknown said...

I think the biggest difference between the two theatres is that in Syria IRGC could bring the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters into battle relatively easily, in part because of geography.

Nader Uskowi said...

That's an important factor. Hezbollah has only sent trainer and advisors to Iraq (one of its senior commanders was killed in Iraq); but is a major force in Syria. Although I still believe that group rivalry between the groups in their own country is the major factor here.