It could bog down like the Iran-Iraq War.
Kenneth Pollack is infamous for his 2002 book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. That doesn’t mean he’s incapable of producing valuable work today. Currently a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Pollack wrote an Iraq Military Situation Report that appeared June 14. The Islamic State in Iraq and Sham — or Syria, or the Levant (take your pick) — he reminds us, “is only one piece (albeit the central piece) in a larger array of Sunni groups that are overwhelmingly Iraqi.” At first I thought he wrote “overwhelming Iraq,” but, apparently, not quite yet. Regarding that, though, Pollack writes:
What appears to be the most likely scenario at this point is that the rapid Sunni militant advance is likely to be stalemated at or north of Baghdad. They will probably continue to make some advances, but it seems unlikely that they will be able to overrun Baghdad and may not even make it to the capital.
While, he points out, ISIS had conquered (however strange it is to use that word in this day and age) primarily Sunni territories, it is “not surprising that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) would crumble in those areas. … several of the divisions in the north were disproportionately composed of Kurds and Sunni Arabs … They were never going to fight to the death for Maliki and against Sunni militants looking to stop him.” Nor did ISF Shia troops in the north see much point “to fighting and dying for principally Sunni cities like Mosul, Tikrit, Bayji, etc.”
Thus, early advantage: ISIS. But, Pollack explains: “Baghdad could be another matter entirely.”
While it is understandable, even predictable, that Shia troops would not fight and die for Sunni cities, many are likely to find their courage when they are defending their homes and families in Baghdad and the other Shia-dominated cities of the south.
In Baghdad, ISIS will face “a far more determined and numerous foe than they have confronted so far. The most likely outcome of that fighting will be a vicious stalemate at or north of Baghdad, basically along Iraq’s ethno-sectarian divide. [This could] lead to a protracted, bloody stalemate along those lines. In that case, one side or the other would have to receive disproportionately greater military assistance from an outside backer than its adversary to make meaningful territorial gains. Absent that, the fighting will probably continue for years and hundreds of thousands will die.”
Whatever the outcome, it doesn’t appear that the black cloud over Iraq will lift anytime soon. The land between the Tigris and the Euphrates the cradle of civilization? It’s been 6,000 years and yet it seems as if many who venture there are still, when it comes to civilization, in their infancy.
Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.