The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground. —THOMAS JEFFERSON, 1788

Guerrilla-terrorist group ISIS seizing Mosul, Iraq: It’s a territorial strategy

Mosul ISIS 4

While it is not clear yet how much of the city the terrorists hold, what is clear is that Iraqi government forces collapsed and fled from the advancing ISIS attackers (“Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham,” also called Islamic State of Iraq and Levant).  The collapse of Iraqi authority has been underway since Sunday, and the most recent reporting indicates thousands of local residents are fleeing to escape ISIS.

In conjunction with the persistent ISIS assault on Anbar Province, to the southwest, the attack on Mosul is a geostrategic one.  ISIS is, in fact, trying to position itself to eventually take over Iraq, and control the interior nexus between Iraq and Syria.

Mosul isn’t just any city in northern Iraq.  It’s the most important hub of government and commerce – and the reason for that is the same reason ISIS wants it.  Mosul sits astride the Tigris River, which forms one of two main approach corridors through western Iraq to Baghdad, the other being the Euphrates River.  (See maps. Map 2 shows the Euphrates corridor six months ago, from this analysis of the growing ISIS threat.)

Map 1.  The Tigris and Euphrates approach corridors -- and lifeblood arteries -- into central Iraq. (Google map; author annotation)

Map 1. The Tigris and Euphrates approach corridors — and lifeblood arteries — into central Iraq. (Google map; author annotation)

Mosul is downstream from the extremely important Mosul Dam, which was built on a flawed construction premise in the 1980s and is in a precarious condition.  Central Iraq is heavily dependent on Tigris water, and if the guerrillas can hang onto Mosul, and the access points to the Tigris, they will sit between the river’s main reservoir in Iraq and its customers.

ISIS corridor in the Euphrates valley. Google map; author annotation.

Map 2. ISIS corridor in the Euphrates valley. (Google map; author annotation.)

That is the same position they’ve been fighting for in Anbar Province along the Euphrates.  These guys aren’t stupid, and they’re not just blow-em-up-Allahu-akbar terrorists.  They’re executing, slowly but surely, a pincer move on Baghdad.  If ISIS has any hope of establishing itself on territory, it has to control some water.  In arid Iraq, water and lines of strategic approach are the same thing.

They’re also the lifeblood of civilization.  The farmers need water from the two great rivers, and so do the city-dwellers.  ISIS doesn’t have to be in charge of doling out the water, at least not at first.  The position its leaders aspire to – beyond holding what’s necessary to consolidate a territorial redoubt for themselves – is being able to threaten the water supply.  They are very close now to achieving that goal.


Iraqis flee Mosul this week under ISIS assault. (Social media image)

Iraqis flee Mosul this week under ISIS assault. (Social media image)

I do not assess that ISIS has a plan to literally attack Baghdad any time soon.  For the time being, ISIS wants to hold Baghdad at risk and be able to extort and snipe at the Maliki government.  Subverting Baghdad itself won’t be feasible until ISIS has established a broader base in both western Iraq and Syria.

What are ISIS’s chances of success?  The way to frame the answer is to recognize that conditions will have to change to defeat ISIS.  Iraq can’t do the job by herself.  Unless those conditions do change, ISIS has pretty good chances.

But conditions in the region are almost certain to change, as much as they need to, to defeat ISIS.  All three of Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s mullahs, and Russia have reason to intervene to beat back the ISIS insurgency.  (There’s a significant presence of Chechens and Dagestanis – bane of Moscow – in the ranks of ISIS.  For the security of her entire southern flank, Russia needs to see the ISIS effort crushed.)

With its new inroads into northern Iraq, ISIS is also a game-changer for the Kurds, and for Turkish policy.  Somebody is going to end up king of the hill in the battle to defeat ISIS.  Whoever it is will be the chief patron of Iraq’s central government.

Massive scale of Iraqi flight from Mosul.  (Image: Twiiter, "mohsinani")

Massive scale of Iraqi flight from Mosul. (Image: Twitter, “mohsinani”)

The Sunnis in Iraq won’t be enamored of simply throwing the door open to an alliance with Iran as the means of defeating ISIS.  Russia, the Kurds, and the Turks will all be in play as counterweights to excessive Shia Iranian influence.  The Saudis may try to involve themselves as well, at least by quietly hooking Sunni factions in Iraq up with cash and outside connections.

The Iraqi situation that America turned over in 2011 will be gone by 2016.  What’s developing in its place is less a matter of the 1950s calling, wanting its geopolitics back, than of the 1910s – or perhaps the 1850s – arriving with a moving van.  Sic transit Pax Americana.

ISIS guerrilla terrorists man a new checkpoint in Mosul.

ISIS guerrilla terrorists man a new checkpoint in Mosul.

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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  • Renee Nal

    Excellent article. The photos of the refugees are heartbreaking.

    I am just speculating, but I guess if it wasn’t ISIS, it would be someone else. I can’t help but to think of Nouri al-Maliki’s appeal to Obama for help last year. I also can’t help but think that after we pull out of Afghanistan, they will go the way of Iraq. I would be curious to get your thoughts on that.

    I wrote a story a while back about how radical Islamists in Iraq left leaflets at people’s houses who were homosexual (or perceived to be homosexual) saying that they would be killed if they were not gone within a certain time frame. They were.

    • J.e. Dyer

      Thanks, Renee. Unfortunately, Iraqis will have more and more of those leaflets and dire warnings to fear. ISIS has been torturing and slaughtering people in Syria, and will assuredly do so in Iraq.

      I actually don’t think there would be “someone else” doing this if it weren’t ISIS, however. I’m trying to convey clearly that ISIS is different. They’re not just random Sunni terror thugs. They’re a guerrilla army with a territorial strategy. They’re fighting across a map, just as if they were William T. Sherman. They have campaign objectives: taking and holding rivers and towns.

      There is no one else who has the vision ISIS has for consolidating a sharia state on the territory of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. When they say “Iraq and al-Sham,” that’s what they’re referring to.

      The “Sham” goes back to the descendants of Shem, or “Semites.” ISIS’ concept harks back to a very ancient disposition of ethnic groupings on the territory of the area in question. We’re talking ancient as in contemporaneous with Abraham (2,000 BC or perhaps earlier) — whose original land holdings, and at least one of his supposed water wells, are commemorated in modern-day Iraq. Many Americans aren’t aware that Islam claims Abraham as a prophet, and claims that the prophecies of Mohammed corrected or superseded the “errors” fallen into by some of Abraham’s descendants. Jews and Christians see Islam as a relatively recent, false “revelation,” but Islam purports to have its roots in the same religious history Jews and Christians agree on from the Tanach. Islam claims true descent from that history. So salafi jihadists can run around claiming that the ancient land of Shem, where Abraham lived and migrated, is properly theirs and should be subject to sharia. That’s where ISIS is coming from. They have a very territorial view; they’re different from al Qaeda, and from other itinerant Sunnis who don’t care about specific territory. They’re also different from Iraq’s indigenous Sunni extremists, who aren’t concerned with uniting a broader sharia state that encompasses Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.

      ISIS is a strange creature and may be hard to defeat, even with, say, Russia involved. Iraq’s gays, Jews, Christians, women, intellectuals — anyone who’s likely to fall afoul of a sharia regime — have real reason to fear.

      • Renee Nal

        Wow – fascinating. And here I was thinking they were garden variety radicals. This shows that they have very specific designs on territory.

      • pandainc

        Excellent breakdown, J.e. The arbitrary Brit/French partitioning that took place post WWI which bolluxed up historic boundaries wasn’t too helpful, either.

      • J.e. Dyer

        It wasn’t helpful, I agree, pandainc. The whole thing is kind of fascinating, as we see boundary concepts much, much older than any of our modern historical touchstones begin to rear their heads again.

        Imagine if the descendants of Celts and Teutons began to rampage across Europe trying to redraw boundaries from 2000 years ago. Those boundaries would only be HALF as old as the boundary evoked by the ISIS concept. How such a boundary idea becomes such a driving factor in a modern strategist’s thinking is a really good question.

  • Geoffrey_Britain

    ISIS, al Qaeda, Shia Iran, whatever the local predominance of these groups, they’re all jihadists. It’s highly probable that the majority of the ME will be Jihadist States within ten years.

    • Renee Nal

      Africa seems to be heading in that direction, as well…

    • J.e. Dyer

      Being jihadists isn’t what’s important about ISIS, however. What’s important about ISIS is that the group has a specific territorial concept of a state — and a state that crosses existing, recognized borders.

      Al Qaeda doesn’t have that. It doesn’t have that anywhere. Al Qaeda will not ever establish a sharia state, because its aspiration is not to control particular territory.

      I’ve been writing about “state-Islamism” since February 2011, and there are different ways of coming at it. There are Hezbollah occupying southern Lebanon and imposing sharia there, using it as a base; there’s Morsi trying to transform Egypt into a vast sharia state; there’s Erdogan trying to turn Turkey into one, on a somewhat different, more incremental model for transformation; there’s Iran and its long-running revolutionary model; and there’s carving out a new state, with new borders, using guerrilla activity.

      The main place we’ve seen that last model, prior to ISIS, is in the Caucasus, where Islamist thug Dokka Umarov proclaimed a border-transecting “Caucasus Emirate” in 2007. But his fight (he’s dead now; the Russians got him) has been mostly waged through bombings against Russian targets. It hasn’t been a maneuver campaign for territory.

      ISIS’s fight IS a maneuver campaign for territory. ISIS does all the jihadist stuff, slaughtering and executing, forcing conversions and crucifying people, coercing women into marriage, setting curfews and killing people for smoking or having their heads uncovered. But it matters that ISIS is waging a maneuver campaign. That is very different from what we’ve seen before.

      • pandainc

        As an historic novice, do the borders of their prospective caliphate mirror those of the pre-WWI boundaries? Thanx for the lissons, BTW.

      • J.e. Dyer

        pandainc — no, the ISIS state doesn’t mirror pre-WWI boundaries. The interesting thing to me is that “ISIS,” which stretches from the eastern border of modern Egypt (with Israel/Gaza) to the eastern border of modern Iraq, hasn’t been a politically or culturally unified area since well before the birth of Christ.

        Remember the Persians who invaded Greece in the movie 300? Their sovereign’s seat of government was in Susa, which was near modern-day Baghdad. The Persian empire of the time (the 5th-4th century BC) occupied most of the territory which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proposes to unify under the “ISIS” banner as a sharia state.

        Al-Baghdadi’s personal heritage appears to be Arab, rather than the more ancient ethnicity of the Persians of 2500 years ago. (The Arabs streamed into Iraq with the waves of Islamic conquest from the 7th century onward.)

        Tying the interest of an Iraqi Arab to the ancient Persian empire could be done in more than one way, but given al-Baghdadi’s background as a scholar of Islamic doctrine and history, his approach seems to be through Islam, which reveres the area in question as the roaming ground of Abraham. Abraham is thought to have come from southern Iraq, near Baghdad, and then migrated eventually to Canaan.

        See the map showing Mesopotamia — the territory that is now Iraq — and Canaan, which covers modern Israel, the PA territories, and parts of Jordan and Lebanon.

        ISIS and al-Baghdadi are a real can of worms. So many ways they will provoke big changes across the Middle East, without US power to keep the whole thing inside a box.

      • pandainc

        Hi, again. First, many thanx for the link — haven’t read it all yet, but hopefully 2night. I remember dere ole Dad watching the carnage in Korea on b/w tv in the early ’50s and, sotto voce, saying “Just who died and left us as the world’s policeman?” In me dotage, I sit here and ask the same question. As I respect your opinion, could you please tell me just where in the hunt our dog is? Guess I’m soured by the ‘Nam mess, but I’m missing the point here, or there, or somewhere. Was the mid-ease your area of expertise or is that MYOB.

      • J.e. Dyer

        It’s a perfectly legitimate question, pandainc (what dog we have in the fight). I’ll frame an answer as follows.

        First, we didn’t have to occupy and try to rebuild Iraq starting in 2003. In fact, that wasn’t even the original plan. Frankly, I still think we should have turned Iraq over to a coalition government formed by Ahmad Chalabi and his counterpart in the Shia resistance. The left-wing spin against Chalabi was always a crock of feces. We could have spared ourselves a world of pain and annoyance by foregoing the occupation.

        In that context, I think we would probably have a more unified Iraq today, and one with a better-performing military. That would make it easier to see that we do have security interests in a stable Iraq, governed by an America-friendly leadership within Iraq’s recognized modern borders. The cost of keeping that benefit wouldn’t be as high as it looks, now that we’ve elected Barack Obama over here, and let the whole situation go to hell.

        The main interest we have in that part of the world is discouraging the fomentation of Islamism, which has a destabilizing effect on everything else that’s important to us: secure and free trade in the region, the security of our allies, and maintaining these things without having to be fighting guerrillas all the time. Deterrence is always way better than having to fight.

        The factors that help us discourage the Islamist terrorism are mainly stable, moderate, Western-friendly governments in the region; the encouragement of trade and free exchange of other kinds between the Western world and the Middle Eastern peoples; and maintaining a capable military that quietly backs up our policy priorities. The policy priorities are things like keeping the Persian Gulf open to free and secure trade by all, keeping the Suez Canal open and administered neutrally and fairly by Egypt, enforcing the Israel-Egypt peace accord, and so forth.

        It all seems far away, but it will actually affect us very quickly if it gets out of hand. It will do this in several ways, only one of which is affecting the oil and gas trade. But that one’s important, because it will have a major impact on some of our allies (like Japan and South Korea).

        Americans are so used to stability that we have little concept today of how quickly things will destabilize if our allies are being hit by economic blows and we are doing nothing about it, or CAN’T do anything about it. We won’t be a very useful ally under those conditions. Our whole network of alliances could be put in jeopardy by spiraling destabilization in the Middle East and across South Asia. I think few of our allies would actively turn against us, but a number of them would have to make arrangements without us, and we’d start being left out of security and trade pacts.

        One thing we’ll see is ever-increasing geopolitical activism from Russia and China, because the power vacuum will create both problems and opportunities for them. In every case, what they want to do — the ways they want to profit — will be at America’s expense.

        America can’t just survive a world of jungle conditions. There is no survival on our own today. The option doesn’t exist. The world is too small and interconnected now.

        That does NOT mean we have to be the world’s policeman. But we could have accomplished so much in the last 5 years by using our influence. We could have promoted stability and discouraged radical attacks on the status quo by clearly signaling what interests we would protect.

        Obama has simply not done that. We’re going to start paying the price for that passivity sooner than people think. If I had to guess, I would say the first direct impacts will be economic, and will probably have something to do with Russia and China disengaging from the dollar. We may find it very hard to borrow and retain liquidity in the next 12 months. The question will be when and whether Russia and China see it as possible to simply cut the cord with the status quo, and actively undermine American economic power. So far, they’ve seen our economy as a stabilizing benefit for themselves. But the day they no longer do, they’ll strike — and it will hurt us badly.

        Projecting power is a coherent, unified policy. If we were showing it by at least providing Iraq with some airborne reconnaissance, and perhaps some armed drone strikes on ISIS, that level of engagement would help give Russia and China pause. And we might not have to do any more than that. It would cost us little, at any rate, and achieve some benefit, both tactically and strategically.

        But Obama’s not doing even that. He is not propping up the status quo at all — anywhere. For the sake of our alliances and our trading security as a global maritime power, and for the major priority of deterring Islamism, we should try to enforce stability in Iraq, although I don’t believe we should put boots on the ground, nor do I think we need to. But Obama is doing nothing.

  • jgets

    I told you we were on the wrong side of this Syria business – and so the Russkies told us. There’s no such thing a a viable “moderate” sunni opposition in the MENA – and there never was, even back in the beginning of the Syrian “revolution” , which some Einsteins in DC certainly had a hand in cooking up. Btw, I wonder what “Dr.” O.Bagy and her neocon sponsors are up to these days.

    It’s Sunni Islam that has to be “contained”, not certain other players…

    So, now, I guess, we have to support the Syrian Arab Army, the Iranian backed Iraqi shia militias, the PKK and it’s offshoots, along with Hizbollah, to stop ISIS. Or, wait for it.. Send in the troops!


    • J.e. Dyer

      There was nothing we “had” to do at the beginning of this. We had choices. The one Obama made was to sit around and dither instead of stating US interests and showing clearly that we would back them up.

      We are not bound to take any side in this but our own. Backing Iran’s play is suicidal, and we should not do it

      Obama is incapable of handling it to America’s advantage, but that doesn’t mean that it was ever impossible to handle without taking a “side” and backing Iran and/or Russia. Doing that is the weak man’s play. We aren’t bound by any systemic factors to be the weak man.

      Obama makes us weak, but given the terrible circumstance that he’s our president, which is by far the worst condition in this entire mix, the stupid things he’s doing are not the worst ones there could be. We shouldn’t align ourselves with Iran or Russia, and thank God, Obama has not done that.

      We SHOULD act in our own interests, which does not mean backing “Sunnis” for Sunnis’ sake. If we had an administration with even half a clue, we would work diligently to divide the Sunnis and play them off in combinations against each other and the other actors.

      Neither Mahdism nor sharia Islamism nor Ottomanism nor BS Shia-Sunni divisions should be allowed to remake the map of the Middle East or threaten American interests. If there’s to be an alignment of great powers, America must be in the lead. Let Russia and Iran follow, if they want to succeed in life.

      Anything else is the definition of the “entangling alliances” to which George Washington referred in his farewell address. Someday we will have a different president. The end of this drama is not written yet.

      • jgets

        If and when you get a chance, please let me in on what exactly “our side” in this business is, other than 1) costly military intervention 2) regime change. Clearly neither of which has worked in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine – so, I don’t see it working in Russia or Iran either. Or, 3) dividing the Sunnis and playing them off in combinations against each other, which just happens to be what the weak Russians and Iranians are doing .

        I fail to see how cooperation with a major regional power to further a mutual interest can be construed as an entangling alliance, (or us following, God forbid) but, on the other hand, a commitment to intervene in NATO Estonia if Narva decided to break away, against the central governments wishes, and reunify with Russia, cannot.

        Yup, someday we will have a different president. and judging by the performance of the last three, the drama will only get more… dramatic.