The activities of ISIS and other Sunni militias in Iraq over the couple of last weeks have suprprised most members of international community and media. However, there have been numerous indicators over the previous months and years that do not make the current development in Iraq so surprising as it is often presented. This article offers you an in-depth analysis of the on-going conflict in Iraq, including the roles, goals and relations of the main actors, recent development and main forces shaping future course of events.
Authors: Tomáš Kaválek and Martin Brožík, master students of Security and Strategic Studies at Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University.
The activities of ISIS and other Sunni militias in Iraq over the couple of last weeks have attracted the attention of a great number of foreign military analysts. The aim of this paper is to identify the conflict actors who are active in the Iraqi theatrum belli as well as to assess their role in the conflict. Not only the insurgents are going to be described, but the al-Maliki’s regime as well together with the role which is played by regional actors. Our opinion is, that this Iraqi war is not as surprising as it is often presented. There were numerous indicators present over the previous months and in some cases even years, that went ignored.
The aim of this text is to examine these and to point out that this conflict could actually have been foreseen since the situation in Iraq deteriorated gradually. The text offers a combination of analysis of the actors, description of their roles and relations all together put into context of the current events. Our ambition is to provide a complex, however comprehensive take on today’s Iraqi conflict. At the end of our analysis we identify main forces shaping further course of events and draw the most probable scenario of future development.
2. Conflict actors
A) Sunni rebels
The structure of actors struggling with the regime of Nouri al-Maliki shall not be reduced to well-known Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Despite the media coverage the ISIS is getting due to their extensive operations in war in Syria they are indeed not the only or the main actor responsible for the ongoing rebellion in Iraq. ISIS itself with estimated manpower of some 5000-10.000 in Iraq and Syria combined is not able to control and consolidate their power within such large territory they claim to control (see Map no. 1). ISIS’s ability to control territory is enhanced by various alliances with local Sunni tribal leaders and by cooperation with significant number of ex-Saddam (or Ba’athist) elements which still poses considerable support among Sunnis in Iraq.
Moreover, we shall critically evaluate ISIS’s claims about controlled territory, while many of the areas and urban centers (e. g. Tal Afar, Suleiman Beg…) are still disputed and rebels do not have strong grip there as they suggest. Most of the territory and centers are contested and there are various elements conducting operations against ISIS and other rebels, such as remains of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), or local tribal militias. Landscape of actors in allegedly rebel-controlled areas is highly complex – there are various local and personal interests, local issues and tribal relations and enmities. Some of them cooperate with the rebels and ISIS; some of them are standing idly by and waiting which allegiance to choose.
To sum up, the idea of forming functioning and consolidated Sunni quasi-state under the command of the ISIS or even their local tribal allies is far-fetched. Sunni actors are traditionally highly fragmented and even facing common enemy we expect severe in-fighting between various ideological and tribal groups. Analogy with this particular expected development can be found during Iraqi insurgency since 2003 when Sunni elements became gradually more fragmented and affected by severe infighting between tribal groups, moderate and hard-line Islamists and nationalists.
We can identify three wide overlapping groups of actors which are coordinating their efforts against al-Maliki’s regime (sorted given their importance):
1) Sunni tribal militias: They consist of various groups which are mostly organized along tribal lines, while there are some attempts to create “coalitions” such as Military Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries (MCIR) which is active since January 2014 and was participating also in operations against the ISF in Anbar at that time and has also strong presence in Mosul. Another example is 1920 Revolution Brigades (founded in 2003) operating in Diyala. There are many other groups and coalitions which in fact have their roots and personal and operational continuity with Iraqi insurgency against coalition and government forces after 2003 and also in so-called Sunni Awakening of 2006 when Sunni militias cooperated with the government against Islamists. Members of those groups have often past in Saddam’s regime structures and many of them subsequently aligned themselves with these groups with respect to their ideologies and tribal affiliations.
2) ISIS: See further.
3) Former Ba’athist figures: There are also several actors with Ba’athist roots who were influential during Iraqi insurgency during American occupation and maintained considerable power and resources up to these days. Example is The Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandia – JTRN) lead by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri who was Saddam’s vice president. JTRN has influence around Kirkuk and southeast of Mosul.
We shall point out that three named groups standing against the regime are on many occasions overlapping, are not heterogeneous and it is hard to distinguish them. Individuals are changing their loyalties, for example while number of members of Sunni Awakening groups remained loyal to their militias, some of them changed their allegiance to ISIS for ideological or economical reasons.
ISIS presence and influence in Sunni-inhabited Iraqi provinces (Nineveh, Salah al-Din, Diyala, Anbar) is long-term and started to ramp up with the U. S. pullout in 2011. Therefore alliances forged with local tribal and Ba’athist elements are result of the ISIS’s longer effort to exploit rising grievances of the Sunni actors towards al-Maliki’s regime. ISIS’s operatives in Iraq are after all composed mostly of Iraqis and the organization itself is descendant of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Al-Zarqawi’s “umbrella” organization of various groups and tribal actors had considerable role in the Iraqi insurgency especially since 2006. However the AQI gradually lost its popular support due to heavy-handed operations and provoking sectarian violence. The organization was then weakened by the 2006 joint operations of ISF, Coalition forces, and coalition of Sunni tribal leaders who eventually turned against the AQI (see Anbar Awakening). The AQI (renamed to ISIS in April 2013) regain strength with expanding their operations to Syria in April 2013. At the same time ex-AQI actors start to considerably earn back their support and presence in Iraq. The main cause has been continuous rise of grievances towards al-Maliki’s regime, while he refused to incorporate significant number tribal militias (also consisting of former Ba’athist elements) participating on Sunni (Anbar) Awakening into the ISF. ISIS has been carefully exploiting those rising grievances and coordinates their efforts with local tribal and ex-Ba’athist elements. Having in mind AQI’s failed policies which alienated tribal elements who eventually turned against them ISIS carefully employs perception management, propaganda and tries to avoid acts which would threaten alliances forged with Sunni tribal elements.
Ongoing rebellion against Baghdad is based on “marriage of convenience” of various Sunni actors against common enemy. Formed “alliance” is fragile and lacks any joint operational command or governing body. There is none central command of operations, we experience only vague coordination of rebel offensives in several directions (Western front in Anbar, Northern or central front in Nineveh and Salah al-Din and Northeastern front in Kirkuk and Diyala). Conduct of operations does not seem to be carefully planned and is rather a result of a general desire to push forward triggered by the fall of Mosul and subsequent rush withdrawal of the ISF. Despite primary success during early days (especially between 10th and 16th June) rapid rebel advance seems to be halted nowadays.
Existing “alliances” can easily be just short-term for several reasons:
ISIS is not the strongest element if we consider capacity to govern in controlled territories, and that capability is in long-term crucial. They need the support of the local leaders; however, they on the other hand may find alliance with ISIS redundant.
Other Sunni elements of rebellion are reluctant to allow ISIS to promote sectarian violence and other violent activities which may alienate their supporters. They warn ISIS to remain “moderate” and not to promote ethnic and sectarian violence, or they will deal with them. For Sunni tribal elements it is crucial to maintain popular support and as well not to alienate other regional actors with distaste for ISIS getting stronger.
Fragile alliance against al-Maliki can very easily fall apart due to different tribal and personal interests of the leaders. Existing “marriage of convenience” and somehow coordinated actions against al-Maliki’s regime will exist only with existence of the common enemy. While the regime falls, or the Sunni provinces are left alone, it is highly possible that previously cooperating actors turn against each other when trying to secure their particular interest. Moreover not all Sunni actors are “pro-rebellion”.
The main challenge for the ISIS remains to sustain their alliances with Sunni tribal actors and not to alienate local population in order not to follow destiny of the AQI after the Sunni Awakening in 2006.
With ISIS spreading its influence, their resources and possibilities to gain money (widening areas where “jihad tax” is being collected, control of number of oil facilities – e. g. by taking the largest oil refinery in Baiji) they can boost their position and successful campaign. ISIS also raided and looted various arms depots and obtained more sophisticated weapons including heavy weaponry which was abandoned by retreating ISF forces. Large amount of looted military equipment and heavier weaponry is being allegedly moved to Syria battlefield where this material may be a game changer in ISIS’s effort to consolidate their positions and to push forward e. g. in Aleppo. ISIS also raided Mosul’s branch of the Iraqi National Bank and took almost half billion dollars. More resources and subsequent successes will attract more followers not only for ideological reasons but rather for material reasons, since ISIS will be able to pay more money to their fighters. And it shall be said that for many young men in the area the vision of stable and high income is attractive enough for them to join the ISIS ranks (which has been in fact happening even before; see for example story of young Kurdish mercenaries from Iraqi Kurdistan joining ISIS campaign).
B) al-Maliki’s Regime
The first al-Maliki’s government came from the results of first free democratic elections in 2005. This has always been seen as a positive milestone in Iraq’s modern history, however the level of enthusiasm has deteriorated since then. The US president G. W. Bush called the new government “decisive break with the past”, saying that this new government represents a better future for the Iraqi people and that the day the terrorists had feared arrived. Looking back at this big speech made by Mr. Bush in 2006 makes researchers wonder what went wrong. It does not seem that the government of Mr. al-Maliki represents an ultimate weapon against terrorism. The reports about ineffective military leadership of Iraqi army officers indicate almost the opposite of the previous statement. The following chapter is going to focus on the dynamics of al-Maliki’s government and its approach towards security threats as well as towards the sectarian division of Iraq. The key question of this chapter could be formed as: “Has al-Maliki’s government been a government of all the Iraqi people? Could there be any factors suggesting, that its approach towards sectarian cleavage directly or indirectly caused current situation?”.
To answer the first question, analysis of the two previous parliamentary elections are needed. More than that, the analysis of the electorate is crucial. In the context of the Shia-Sunni division of Iraq, it is important to mention, that the elections in January 2005 were largely boycotted by Sunni electorate. On the other hand most of the electorate was made up by the Kurds and Shi’a voters. There was large mobilization of Shia women. The January 2005 elections meant great loss for Sunni citizens of Iraq. In total, their representatives gained 5 out of 275 seats. This has lead to a high level of frustration as well as to the feeling that Sunnis are being left out of the political and decision making processes. The goal of provisional government after the election was to create a new constitution and lead the country towards next – this time regular elections.
These other elections were held in December 2005, this time with large participation of Sunnis, however this is usually seen as the way Sunnis protested against the results of previous elections and against the Shiite-led transitional government. As a compromise for Shia, Sunni and Kurds, Nouri al-Maliki was found as a suitable candidate for the post of the Prime Minister. Eight years on, Mr. Maliki is still maintaining this post, even though his support among Sunnis and Kurds is rapidly shrinking. So there goes our first answer – even though al-Maliki was seen as a compromise for Sunnis and Kurds, his support among these minorities is slowly disappearing. There is a rapidly growing number of people in Iraq who disagree with him and would prefer his replacement. And why is that? This is basically the answer for the second question – but to answer that, we need to look more thoroughly on specific al-Maliki’s policies regarding the minorities in Iraq.
To start in general terms – a recent witness report made by two U.S. security officials said, that al-Maliki’s approach towards Sunni population was gravely antagonizing. These reports had been continuously provided to both the White House and the Congress, but no actions were taken. The report goes on describing, that the policies implemented by al-Maliki’s administration caused alienation of the Sunni population and offered a space and motives to ISIS for its operations. There was also a statement published made in 2006 by General Michael Hayden that what is Washington asking of al-Maliki goes way beyond his life experience. This means that al-Maliki was de facto considered by CIA a person not suitable for the difficult task which he, as the Prime Minister of Iraq was facing. But to go further into details, let’s have a look at some of the specific al-Maliki’s decisions.
According to Marc Lynch’s commentary from the Washington Post, al-Maliki lost Sunni Iraq because of his refusal to make a deal with the Sunni minority. His response to the escalating insurgency in the Anbar province has also deteriorated the governmental-Sunni relations. “His exclusionary policies, attempts to monopolize power and rough security practices radicalized a Sunni community that might have been brought into the system following the civil war” contemplates Lynch.
To sum up this chapter, as we could see the al-Maliki’s approach towards especially the Sunni minority offered enough space for radicalization of large number of otherwise moderate actors. The lack of opportunities to participate on the future development of Iraq has caused a rapid growth of frustration which led to further radicalization of some Sunni groups and thus offered rich background for ISIS’s and other militia’s operations. This was seen even before events took drastic turn in recent weeks but the lack of will to deal with the growing problem opened the gate to what can be seen as so far successful and surprising campaign of Sunni militias. At the end, considering al-Maliki’s approach, it is not surprising at all.
C) The Kurds
Relations between Barzani’s Iraqi Kurdistan and al-Maliki’s federal government in Baghdad have been deteriorating for several years now. Erbil’s centrifugal tendencies and attempts to strengthen their quasi-state status for example by pursuing independent oil policies and seeking ways to export oil through Turkey created severe tensions between the Kurdish Regional and the Iraqi Federal Government. Kurdish armed forces (Peshmergas) are compared to other groups, including regular units of the ISF, well-equipped and trained units with significantly high morale and motivation to fight for their “Kurdistan”.
With emerging power vacuum along their border, they rapidly pushed forward and garrisoned emptied ISF’s military installations and checkpoints especially in disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk and its surroundings. Kurdish officials justify southern movement of Peshmergas by “humanitarian reasons” to keep the population safe and to prevent ISIS to spread their presence. Kurdish media although describe recent development as “historic step towards reunification of Kurdish lands”. Kurdish moves are following previous policy pattern of exploiting Baghdad’s increasing vulnerabilities to gradually gain stronger position. On the other hand it is clearly not in Kurdish interest for Sunni areas to descent into chaos which can affect Iraqi Kurdistan’s stability and security in both short-term (flow of refugees) and long-term perspective.
The Kurds on one hand garrisoned disputed territories around Kirkuk and created buffer zones in other Iraqi Kurdistan border regions, however on the other hand Peshmergas cooperate for example in Diyala with the ISF. Barzani’s regime has general distaste for ISIS and radical Islamist elements but they are in contact with Sunni tribal militias and their representatives. Only minor clashes occurred between advancing rebel forces which indicates that there is most probably deal between Sunni rebels and Kurds about their respective spheres of influence. Sunni rebels are so far not attacking Kurdish areas and Peshmergas remain in most of the territories neutral. However Kurdish armed forces may have decisive role while in position to attack rear rebel areas.
In our opinion it is unlikely that the Kurds would deliberately meddle into Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict, but if there would be imminent threat of definitive fall of Baghdad and rest of Iraq descending into chaos the Kurds would have interest in ramping up their assistance to the ISF. In longer-term perspective, if Sunni areas will descend into further chaos and radical Islamist elements such as ISIS are on the loose and trying to spread their radical ideology and influence among the Kurds or in disputed Kirkuk the Kurds will definitely intervene.
D) Regional actors
It would be false to see the current development in Iraq as solely Iraqi’s case, there are many regional as well as trans-national actors present and playing large role in the dynamics of the conflict. The goal of this chapter is to briefly summarize the role which is played by Turkey, Iran, Syria and the USA in the current Iraqi conflict.
Turkey – Recently a couple of allegations has appeared suggesting that Turkey in addition to Syrian opposition groups supports ISIS as well. The source of these allegations are mainly Kurds in both Syria and Turkey. These allegations were denied by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, saying, that there is no proof to them. But the Kurdish authorities in both Turkey and Syria have other opinion. According to Saleh Muslim, the co-chairman of PYD, Turkey is assisting ISIS and the occupation of Turkish consulate in Mosul could have been a mean to contradict the accusations. According to Muslim, Turkey is providing a passage for Jihadists to Syria and now to Iraq as well.
On the other hand according to Merve Tahiroglu ISIS does poses a threat to Turkey, however it is a threat caused by AKP’s policies of open doors. These allegations were all denied by Ankara, saying that the West is to be blamed for not intervening in Syria when the civil war started. However the fact remains that Turkey’s assistance to Islamist rebels in Syria is extensive. Ankara indeed created “two-way jihadist highway” while pro-actively supporting rebels and de facto opening its borders for movement of Islamist rebels.
Iran – The most significant step taken by Iran in relation to ISIS crisis in Iraq is the deployment of Revolutionary Guards in Iraq. Iran also secured the Iran-Iraqi border and a clearance was issued in order to allow Iranian air forces to bomb ISIS rebel forces in the 60 miles perimeter along the border. The elite unit Quds Force led by mysterious General Soleimani is reported to be present in Baghdad and responsible for the city defense. Mr. Soleimani has already faced ISIS in Syria, assisting al-Assad’s forces.
Syria – there are major impacts of the current development in Iraq for al-Assad’s regime. Iraq represents an important route for supplies and financial resources. The worsening security situation in Iraq could lead to destabilization of Assad’s so far successful campaign. The worsening situation in Iraq has of course impact on al-Assad’s position since al-Assad and al-Maliki are allies.
The United States – even though not being a regional player, the USA’s role in Iraq over the last decade has shaped the current Iraq. The criticism on not only USA’s foreign policy was imminent right after the first outbreak of ISIS attacks. In reaction to this, president Obama has agreed to send 300 military advisors in order to help out the Iraqi armed forces. So far the direct deployment of “boots on the ground” is highly improbable. The US Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Baghdad recently, saying that the US support will be intense, but also suggested that Iraq’s authorities are expected to take steps needed to ensure effective deployment of its armed forces.
Mr. Kerry has been also asked by the Iraqi PM al-Maliki for targeted air strikes, but there are worries about the possible civil casualties of such measures . The United States find themselves in a very peculiar situation as it seems that the billions of dollars spent on building and training the Iraqi armed forces were wasted and that the army is not able to operate independently. Also, Iran is another significant actor, but the security cooperation between the United States and Iran in order to secure Iraq would be very problematic, as their mutual diplomatic relations are getting better only very slowly and strictly in terms of the Iranian nuclear programme.
3. Analysis of recent development
A) The Western Front (Anbar)
The opening of the Western Front in the Anbar province is dated back to January-February 2014. On January 4 the government forces lost control over Fallujah and Ramadi – a hot spot in modern Iraq’s history. The clashes continued also in Ramadi, where the government forces and ISIS were gaining and losing control over the city. The air strike made by Iraqi armed forces killed large number of militants but as was mentioned above, also caused a lot of civil casualties.
The escalation of violence in Anbar further continued in April, when the militia members closed the Dam and the PM together with FM assured the public that Iraqi army is going to be deployed in order to regain control. Throughout the whole April ISIS and the Iraqi army were caught in several skirmishes mostly around Fallujah, Ramadi and its surroundings. The ISIS forces managed to destroy a battle tank and seize large number of army issued weapons and ammunition .
The situation in Anbar has further developed in May, when the Iraqi army launched offensive in order to regain control over Fallujah. The action resulted in 13 deaths and 40 injured people as well as massive escape of local population out of the town. The current development in the Anbar province is following: The ISIS forces together with opposition fighters managed to gain control over Al-Qaim border crossing as well as managed to seize Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons stockpile, which, if confirmed is of course rather disturbing news.
The development in Anbar province has couple of key points – two of them are the key cities that have always played a crucial role in the security of Iraq – Fallujah and Ramadi. Another point is that the ISIL and other militia fighters managed to overtake strategically important facilities – such as Fallujah dam, the al-Qaim border crossing and last but not least, the chemical weapons warehouses. One of the key problems of the conflict is the fact that the clashes started already in January, but the Iraqi army was unable to face them efficiently.
B) The Central Front (Nineveh, Salah al-Din)
The epicenter of the Central Front is mainly the city of Mosul – the second largest city in Iraq. The city fell to ISIS on June 11 after large numbers of troops laid down their arms and fled away. The failure of Iraqi army to protect the Nineveh province was fatal – ISIS nowadays controls about 85% of the province. The amount of financial resources captured in Mosul is estimated to be $400m, plus weapons, uniforms, armored trucks, tanks and anti-aircraft batteries. On the same day, ISIS made an advance to Salah al Din, capturing the town Shurkat and an old air base. July 11 was a day of big loss and a total fiasco of the Iraqi army. The ISIS militants managed to get and capture Baiji oil refinery, the biggest refinery in the country. The refinery is producing about 300,000 barrels per day and its operations have direct impact on global prices of oil. June 11 also meant the capture of Tikrit, the capital of Salah al-Din province, al-Adheem city and the next day the city of Al-Dour was captured as well. At that moment 70% of Salah al-Din province were under the ISIS’s control.
In the next following days more airbases were captured, ISIS executed hundreds of Iraqi army soldiers and posted pictures on the internet. On the 13th June the Iraqi armed forces together with local tribes managed to recapture the city of Dhuluiya and started pushing towards the north.
On the 15th of July ISIS attacked the Tal Afra town in Nineveh, an important crossroad between Anbar, Nineveh and Syria crucial for supplying the militias. The clashes in Tal Afar continued throughout the next couple of days. June 17 was significant for the deployment of elite anti-terrorist unit at the Baiji refinery, as the battle of its control continues.
The situation in most of the cities and key facilities is changing from day to day. The latest development suggested that the Iraqi army managed to gain certain areas back, but for example on the 23rd June ISIS managed to gain the cities of Rutba and Qaim. The Baiji refinery is not yet secured and neither are the border crossings and other key facilities.
C) The Northwestern Front (Diyala, Kirkuk)
ISIS established the Governorate in Diyala in late December 2013 with ambitious goal to govern the whole territory. Diyala is crucial in order to gain sufficient access to Baghdad – this explains why the ISIS militants have taken over parts of the city of Baquba on June 17 as well as the city of Jalulah on June 13. Jalulah was reclaimed on June 18 as the Peshmerga forces pushed ISIS out. On the 20th June however have the security forces collapsed and withdrew from Diyala province.
ISIS also attacked the oil fields near Kirkuk. This led to the statement made by the Peshmerga officials vowing their soldiers to fight and push out the ISIS militants out of the territory.
In order to summarize this chapter, there are few key elements that are crucial for understanding the dynamics of the conflict. The conflict was not a day-to-day event, it did not develop over short period of time, but there were significant indicators warning, that certain pressure is growing among the Sunni militant groups. However these indicators went unnoticed and it allowed them to erupt into full-scale conflict as we see it today.
The problem of the readiness of Iraqi army is alarming. According to Michael Knights the Iraqi army surrender to an enemy who is just one fifteenth of its size.
4. Identifying forces shaping further development
Main forces shaping further development in short- and middle-term perspective
Reaction of the United States: The nature of U. S. response is crucial to Baghdad’s capability to counter Sunni rebels. Majority of Iraqi army is ill-trained with low morale and with little chance to renew full control of Sunni areas. Direct U. S. military intervention on the ground is unlikely, however assistance in the form of intelligence sharing, advisers, instructors and sophisticated weapon systems would mean enhancement of the ISF capacities. Although, without capable Iraqi forces on the ground controlling territory it will be difficult to fully exploit U. S. aid.
Reaction of the regional actors: Approach of regional actors such as Iran, Turkey and Gulf States towards contemporary war in Iraq will considerably shape form of further development of conflict. Further increase of existing Iran’s assistance for al-Maliki’s predominantly Shiite government will mean considerable enhancement of ISF’s capabilities. Teheran, unlike the U. S., offers to send thousands of elite soldiers to accompany Revolutionary Guard forces already present in Iraq. Aiding al-Maliki’s government is not only matter of further enhancing its influence over Baghdad in regional geopolitical competition but also a matter of promoting their soft power by designing themselves as the protectors of Shiites and their holy places. On the other hand Gulf actors, especially Saudi Arabia, will likely follow Syrian pattern of supporting Sunni rebels and Islamist elements in order to curb Iranian influence in the region. Turkey might follow pattern of gradual abandoning Iraqi unity foreign policy predicament and increasingly back Iraqi Kurdistan while hoping they will be able to fill in some power vacuum in Iraqi Sunni areas. The question remains how far in geopolitical competition will be regional actors willing to go. Having another highly unpredictable “Syria-like situation” with possibility of spillover is undesirable for Iran, Turkey, Gulf States and as well other players.
Ability of Sunni rebels to create unified command and governing structures in controlled territories: Success of Sunni rebels is interconnected with their ability to build at least unified military command structures in order to sustain expected ISF’s pressure and to coordinate efforts to fully control Sunni territories. In longer-term perspective it is crucial to create, if not governing body, at least to reach rigid power-sharing agreement about influence of respective actors in Sunni controlled lands. Having in mind extreme fragmentation and mutual enmities of Sunni actors this in our opinion might be even bigger challenge than Baghdad’s counter-measures. Rebellion may easily lose its breath with further emerging in-fighting between Sunni groups as we experienced after the Anbar Awakening of 2006. Landscape of various (tribal) groups with their particular interests is an invitation for manipulation, bribery and silent deals among them and Baghdad or other regional actors whose interest is to weaken Baghdad but on the other hand have distaste for possibly strong Sunni entity in Iraq (such as Turkey).
Level of influence of actors fueling sectarian disputes and violence: Dominant position of actors deliberately fueling sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite, or between Arabs and other ethnics (e. g. Turkmens, Christians…) would lead to further escalation of conflict and possibly spread of acts of ethnic cleansing. Such development would make it much harder to at least somehow reconcile Sunnis and Shiites and moreover it would create humanitarian crisis with flow of refugees and internally displaced people. Spiral of sectarian violence would further strengthen radical actors and served as mobilization mean for both Sunni Islamists and Shiite militants while marginalizing relatively moderate actors. In our opinion we can expect further ISIS’s efforts to fuel sectarian violence and targeting both Shiites and their holy places (Samarra, Karbala…) in order gain stronger position as the protectors of Sunni faith. These attempts will be more subtle in order not to directly alienate their local tribal allies. Al-Maliki’s mass mobilization is already framed as effort to protect the existence of Shiite and their holy places facing “imminent Sunni Islamist threat”.
Probable scenario of further development
Al-Maliki’s regime successfully continues mobilization and training Shiite militias. At the same time the ISF with the help of local tribal allies and existing and newly formed militias stops rapid advance of rebel forces. Counter-offensives to fully retake rebel influenced territories have only minor success. The ISF struggles against highly motivated Sunni rebels and is not able to re-establish control over Sunni inhabited areas. On the other hand the regime is tightening their grip over Shiite areas and key entrances to Baghdad while getting stronger and trying to obtain further international assistance from Iran or the U. S. Possible rebel conventional offensive towards Shiite areas are hold off and eventually fail. Rebels try to consolidate their control over territory and establish local governing structures. It is expected that radical Sunni elements ramp up bombings, kidnappings and ad hoc hit and run attacks in Shiite areas, especially in Baghdad. This campaign however does not change existing stalemate. Baghdad is not able to fully retake Sunni areas by military means. Sunni rebels probably become increasingly fractionalized and manipulated by both external actors and Baghdad. Infightings occur more often. Security situation in Sunni areas continues to deteriorate. Iraqi Kurdistan tries to create buffer zones and tighten their grip over Kirkuk and its surroundings. Another front against the Kurds is not opened and we experience only minor clashes between Peshmergas and Sunni rebels.