Success of the ISIS campaign will only end up strengthening Shiite hold on Iraq.
To go by much of the commentary about Iraq in recent days, the country is already past the breaking point under the lightning campaign by Sunni insurgents. It would be no surprise if the next few weeks brought them to the gates of Baghdad. But an assault on Baghdad, or even its capture, would be an illusory victory. It can only end in defeat — and the strengthening of the insurgents’ sworn Shiite enemies in Baghdad and, especially, Tehran.
First, consider the brute demographic reality. Unlike in Syria, Sunnis are a relatively small part of the Iraqi population, about 25 per cent — though they are a majority in some areas of the west and north. And in Baghdad their numbers are minuscule. The reason for this lies in an earlier Sunni revolt triggered by the second gulf war. Baghdad was the target then, too, and its Sunni population was about 35 per cent. As the Sunnis asserted themselves militarily, Shiites struck back; by 2008, when their fury was largely spent, Sunnis were reduced to as little as 12 per cent of the city’s population.
If the insurgents of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, enter Baghdad’s residual Sunni neighbourhoods, they will likely be welcomed, but they won’t have much to work with, nor will they have the strategic depth they will need in the street fighting that ensues. Moreover, rather like what happened in Syria, the Sunni offensive is likely to spur a transformation of the Iraqi army from the sorry mess it is now into a more resilient and operationally effective force.
The character of the Sunni offensive will mobilise more than just the army. Mass execution has been meshed with the use of religious symbolism by the insurgents, who framed their objective as extirpating “the filth” — Shiite teaching and believers — from Najaf and Karbala, the two holiest Shiite cities. In a minority war on a majority population, this is a suicidal tactic. The Shiites will hit back even harder than last time. In addition to being hobbled by their paltry numbers, the rebels have chosen to make war on an adversary with powerful friends who have a serious stake in the future of Iraq.
Iran has already pledged assistance to the government of Prime …continued »