The crisis in Iraq is evolving rapidly, two months after the rapid advance of ISIL (now Islamic State) forces from across the border in Syria enabled them to capture the city of Mosul and link the territories under their control.
Most current concern is with the displacement of religious minorities, especially the Yazidis, and the threat to the Kurdish capital of Irbil. The plight of these displaced and vulnerable people has led voices on both sides of the Atlantic to call for more direct military intervention against the Islamic State (see Michelle Tan. “Top U.S. officer in Iraq: ‘We must neutralize this enemy’”, Army Times, 7 August 2014).
So far, Barack Obama's administration is reluctant to commit to a larger campaign against the Islamic State (IS). Washington is influenced here by a lack of clarity about the power of the movement and whether it has the capability to break out of its northern stronghold. The IS move towards Irbil, for example, might have been intended not to take over the city but to tie down the Kurdish military (Pershmerga) forces so that they could not interfere with the IS's consolidation of control over disputed areas) such as those around the Mosul dam).
Washington may continue to hold back unless IS makes further advances towards Irbil. Overall, however, the big strategic change would be if US forces need to establish a forward-operating base in the Kurdish region. That would require wide-ranging support and base-protection, including many technical specialists. In that case the US forces could quickly expand to 10,000-15,000 troops (see Andrew Tilghman, "Why Obama's campaign in Iraq could require 15,000 troops", Military Times, 8 August 2014).
The foundations of such a level of military involvement are already in place. The United States now has nearly 1,000 troops in Iraq and its planes are flying close to a hundred sorties a day, including strike operations, reconnaissance and support. In fact, the total may be well over that number, since it does not include special forces (whose presence the Pentagon rarely admits to). These, in the form of US Special Operations Command, have close to 70,000 personnel (nearly as large as the entire British army when the current round of cuts is completed), composed of diverse forces with multiple capabilities. Such a below-the-radar capability - a kind of war by "remote control" - is part of the new means of conducting military operations that have become so significant since the failure of the “boots-on-the-ground” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A movement's options
The position of the Islamic State is key to the possibilities of escalating conflict in Iraq. The success of the movement since June 2014 is owed in part to the combat experience gained by its paramilitary units against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, and in some cases against US forces in Iraq; both will have helped to develop their abilities in urban warfare. Even amid IS's campaign in Iraq it has continued to expand the territories under its control in Syria, both by its own actions and by getting other jihadists to join it; the seizure of a number of villages north of Aleppo this week is an example.
In Iraq, the capture of huge amounts of US-supplied weapons, ammunition and vehicles from the collapsing Iraqi army is a great boon to the movement. Sunni resentment against Nouri al-Maliki's pro-Shi'a government has fuelled IS support. It has plenty of financial resources from banks and foreign backers, and in Syria it is consolidating its hold over oil resources, power-generation and rich farmland. All in all, it seems in a strong position.
The broader picture, though, includes three other elements. First, many of the Islamic State's gains have been consolidated by working with other Sunni groups, both clans and militias, so much so that the latter undertake the routine organisation of captured towns.
Second, the foreign aid and weapons now flowing into the Kurdish region mean that any IS attempt to take further territory and gain control of the substantial oil facilities on the Kirkuk-Mosul axis will be costly.
Third, and perhaps most significant, Nouri al-Maliki is highly unlikely to survive as Iraqi prime minister now that Iran has withdrawn support from him. The next government in Baghdad is almost certain to be more inclusive, which could deprive the Islamic State of much of its support within a few months.
In turn this raises the question of how the IS might act in relation to its long-term aims, which revolve around developing the new caliphate as the core of an expanding (rather than a static) entity. Thus it somehow has to galvanise potential support, especially among committed young men from across the region and beyond, as well as from existing and prospective funders.
Its success until now has aided that endeavour. But now that a more representative government in Baghdad is likely, it faces a new challenge. From the Islamic State’s perspective, it would benefit from sustained western military engagement - especially with boots on the ground. Its propagandists could readily represent this as a “war on Islam” conducted by a "crusader-Zionist” alliance, connecting it with United States military aid to Israel.
The IS has a problem, however: the annoyingly cautious Barack Obama. As long as he is in the White House, a really large-scale despatch of US troops is probable only after the staging of a major incitement. A "mass casualty" attack against US interests, probably in the Middle East, is one possibility. A likelier move - which may already be in preparation - is an attempt to take control of Baghdad, starting with an assault on the substantial US forces deployed at the city's airport.
Most of the attention in Washington, Paris and London at present is currently on Irbil. Much more, perhaps, should be on Baghdad.