It’s time for everybody invested in Iraq to take a tranquilizer. The media will go on fizzing with apocalyptic speculations for a week or so because that kind of talk always sells, but the war of movement is over.
It never was much of a war: A third of Iraq was captured by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and various Sunni militias in one week at a cost that probably didn’t exceed a thousand lives (plus however many were murdered by ISIS afterwards). The Islamist radicals have now reached approximately the limits of the territory in Iraq that has a Sunni Arab majority, and they’d be mad to throw away all their gains by trying to conquer Baghdad.
There are lots of young men fighting for ISIS who would love to be martyred in such an attack, but ISIS is run by grown-ups. They know that they can’t go farther without running out of the popular support that let a few thousand fighters sweep through Sunni lands so easily.
Baghdad is defended by Shiite militias that already number in the tens of thousands and will probably soon pass the hundred thousand mark. Most of them know far less about fighting than the ISIS veterans, but they are just as keen on martyrdom and they would outnumber the ISIS fighters 20-to-one, maybe 50-to-one. Two or three days of street fighting in the huge, now mostly Shiite city of Baghdad and ISIS would have no more troops.
So ISIS has advanced about as far as it is going to go. And, by the way, so has the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KRG’s Peshmerga troops now control not only the disputed oil city of Kirkuk but almost 100 percent of traditionally Kurdish territory in Iraq, compared to only about 70 percent two weeks ago.
During most of the fighting, the Peshmerga and ISIS observed a de facto ceasefire while they concentrated on the territory that really mattered to them. There have been some exchanges of fire between ISIS and Peshmerga in the past few days along the ill-defined border between their new holdings, but nothing very serious.
There might have been a major clash around Tel Afar, where KRG President Masoud Barzani offered to commit Peshmerga to the city’s defense just before ISIS attacked, but President Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad rejected his offer. The Kurdish troops withdrew, and the city fell to ISIS.
Almost certainly, the reason Mr. Maliki declined Mr. Barzani’s offer was that it came with major strings attached. Having grabbed the territory he wanted, Mr. Barzani was asking the government in Baghdad to recognize Kurdistan’s new borders. Mr. Maliki’s reason for refusing, even though it meant losing Tel Afar, would have been that he still hopes for a third term and could not afford to be seen giving away “Arab” territory to the Kurds.
In ideological terms, ISIS would like to incorporate Kurdistan into its ever-expanding Islamic caliphate, which would erase virtually all borders within the Sunni Muslim world, but in practical terms it knows that it cannot do that, at least for the moment. In ideological terms, ISIS would also like to convert or exterminate all the Shiites in the world, starting with the 20 million in Iraq, but in practical terms it cannot do that either.
So the borders of the three successors to the current state of Iraq — Kurdish, Shiite Arab and Sunni Arab — have already been drawn, with the important addition that the Sunni Arab successor region extends across the old international frontier to include eastern Syria as well. These changes will not be reversed: the Shiite-majority rump of the former Iraqi state that extends from Baghdad to Basra does not have the strength to restore the old centralized Iraq.
Is this really such a disaster?
Not for the Kurds, obviously, and not really for the Shiite Arabs either: They still have all of their own territory (i.e., Shiite-majority territory) and most of the oil. Nor will the Baghdad government that still rules that territory need U.S. air power to save it. (President Barack Obama has probably just been stalling on that issue until that became clear.)
The problematic bit is the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. They are clearly delighted to have shaken off the corrupt and oppressive sectarian rule of Mr. Maliki, but for the near future at least they will have to contend with the unappetizing prospect of being ruled instead by the incorruptible but brutally intolerant leaders of ISIS.
It should be borne in mind, however, that even now the great majority of the armed men who have created this new Sunni proto-state are not ISIS fanatics. Most of them are either tribal militiamen or former members of the Baathist-era army that was dissolved by the invaders after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They belong to organizations that have real political power, and they vastly outnumber the ISIS fanatics.
Those same organizations broke the hold of al-Qaida in Iraq, the ancestor to ISIS, in western Iraq in 2007-2009, and it’s entirely possible that in a few years’ time they will end up doing it again to ISIS. But the borders of the new Sunni Arab state, stretching from western and northern Iraq into eastern Syria, may survive. There’s no particular harm in that.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and military analyst based in London.