The Quagmire in Iraq and the Rising Threat of ISIS

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Hakan Özden

Assistant professor and head of the department of political science and public administration , Nişantaşı University in Istanbul

As the situation in Iraq continues to worsen, it seems unlikely that the country will be able to maintain security and political unity. The increasing power of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has contributed to Iraq’s postwar deterioration. Contributing factors include both political divisions and economic adversity. Although Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians attempt to cooperate in the central government, there is still no consensus concerning Iraq’s future, and religious and ethnic divisions are becoming exacerbated.

Iraq’s Shiite majority1 dominates the governing coalition in Baghdad and is unwilling to share power with the large Sunni minority. Sunnis’ perceptions of discrimination by the government in Baghdad have led to support for anti-Shiite al-Qaeda-linked groups such as ISIS.2 In addition, Iraq’s Kurdish minority, with its own government and security forces, holds considerable autonomy in northern Iraq.3 Its difficulties with the central government concern issues such as the division of oil profits4 and the status of areas with a significant Arab-Kurdish population.

When no unity exists in a country, it is typical for militant groups to emerge. ISIS arose in Syria and Iraq during the 2003 Iraq War and declared allegiance to al-Qaeda5 in 2004. Comprising Sunni and other insurgent groups, ISIS was primarily active in the Anbar, Kirkuk, Saluhaddin, Diyala and Babylon provinces throughout the war. ISIS’s sphere of influence increased in Syria6 when militarists moved into the Raqqa and Aleppo regions during the civil war of 2011 and advanced to Damascus. The main ISIS objective involved the establishment of a Sharia state within Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Jordan. Its power was thought to have waned in the final phase of the Iraq war; however, when the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2012, the group began to regain its strength.7 By April 2013, ISIS rapidly achieved military power in northern Syria and became one of the dominat groups in that region. It broke with al-Qaeda in February 2014.

The ISIS offensive has contributed to Iraq’s sectarian crisis, pulling the country gradually into chaos between 2012 and the summer of 2013. ISIS’s entrance into Mosul occurred after the April 2014 Iraqi parliamentary elections through which the country was establishing its government. On June 6, 2014, ISIS arrived in Mosul, where government forces in the city failed to manage ISIS attacks, and a security gap formed. Thousands of people in began to flee their homes. The International Organization for Migration announced that, following the ISIS takeover, 500,000 civilians left the city.8 This announcement undermined the reliability of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Meanwhile, ISIS militants continued to carry out violence, kidnapping Turkish truck drivers in Mosul in June and seizing the Turkish consulate there in a separate incident; 48 Turkish citizens were taken hostage, including the consul general. The Turkish government stated that these actions would not go unreciprocated if any of the hostages were wounded or killed. In September, 101 days after being taken hostage, the Turkish citizens were freed. ISIS proceeded to its next target, Kirkuk, where the Iraqi armed forces and security units failed to thwart the assault. Moreover, the Iraqi soldiers deserted under fire, leaving their weapons and uniforms behind. These developments heightened concerns regarding national security.

The ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then announced his determination to proceed to Baghdad, taking control of various locations en route, such as Tikrit, Anbar and Diyala. ISIS engaged in armed clashes with the Peshmergas and the Iraqi army near Hanekin and Celevle and dominated with the Sunni Arab majorities.

The civilian population suffered greatly from these armed clashes, and former Prime Minister Maliki9 feared losing power in the regions with Shiite majorities. The security forces were losing strength and morale. Maliki knew that he needed foreign support and called for help from outside countries such as Iran and the United States.10 Iran announced its support for the protection of holy places in Iraq, and the United States sent a ship to the Persian Gulf with arms and logistical support. Meanwhile, ISIS forces intensified their attacks during the pre-election period and embarked on a new strategy of targeting government forces. In addition, ISIS was actively operating in Syria.

Amid armed clashes and political unrest, the April 2014 elections were held. Maliki’s State of Law Coalition won and had the great advantage of forming the government, which increased Maliki’s self-confidence. His attempt to dominate the governmental process created between Sunnis and Shiites. The Sunnis were concerned about being left out of the political process. Despite the election results, Maliki’s prestige was weakened as ISIS advanced.11

Meanwhile, ISIS cooperated with local groups, including anti-Maliki tribes, former Baath party members and Sunni opposition groups, sharing its sphere of influence in the occupied regions, expanding areas under its control and indirectly strengthening its position throughout the country. Sunni groups that were not “integrated” into the Iraqi political process became dissatisfied with the system12 and participated in so-called settlements. Divisions among the groups deepened, increasing the effectiveness of ISIS.

Government forces were unable to compete with ISIS in some regions, such as Sulaymanbeg, Ramadi, Fallujah and Tikrit, and these areas fell under ISIS authority. Prior to the elections, Maliki had engaged in operations to override the ISIS offensive and obtain political advantage. However, his measures led to a further increase in sectarian tensions. For example, Maliki attempted to obtain help from several tribes to counter ISIS operations, but trouble emerged among the tribes, implying a shift of balance in the region in favor of ISIS and against the Iraqi government and the tribal constituents.

ISIS’s presence in Sunni-majority areas endangered all the people living there, including the Turkmens, the third-largest ethnic group in Iraq. Turkmens mostly reside in the north, though they have no safe haven. A major issue was their lack of weaponry, which made them an open target, unable to gather and unite. In June, another blow was struck: the fall of their city west of Mosul, Tal Afar.

The Turkmens were under threat because the oil-rich areas are located primarily in the north of Iraq, which is also a site of struggle between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Furthermore, the Turkmens live in disputed areas such as Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmato, which had been under central government control prior to the ISIS takeover. Afterward, KRG established its dominance; ISIS operations had produced Kurdish control. All of these issues led to great apprehension among the Turkmens and contributed to the complexity of their situation.


As ISIS continued to enlarge its sphere of action, Baghdad came under growing threat. As a result, the Iraqi armed forces withdrew. In August 2014, the United States assigned approximately 1,000 American soldiers to protect the American Embassy.13 Peshmerga forces of the KRG took control of Kirkuk. In the meantime, Tikrit and Anbar fell under ISIS domination, giving it a connection between north and south Iraq and control of a much longer border, enabling the advance toward Baghdad.

In addition to its territorial gains, ISIS also increased other resources. Most areas seized from the Peshmerga possessed vast oil reserves, and it was crucial for ISIS to control them.14 The Mosul Dam was a significant acquisition. The dam controls water levels on the Tigris River, a significant source of water and electricity. It was feared that the militants could flood the northern region of Iraq. In the conquered regions, ISIS forces also gained access to vast sources of ammunition and weaponry,15 and they continued to execute Shiite soldiers in regions where they took control.

When the ISIS threat against Baghdad arose, Maliki called for resistance and announced that supporters of the central government would be armed. Shiite leader Ali al-Sistani called for civilians to arm against the terrorists. A Shiite population supporting the government would strengthen Maliki’s position. To increase efforts to prevent the advance of ISIS in Iraq, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called on neighboring countries to supply military aid and support. The president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, called on former Peshmerga forces and the Kurdish public to support the struggle against ISIS. On the following day, ISIS forces attacked Tuz Khormato, where a majority of the Turkmens lived. Iraqi soldiers had withdrawn, abandoning their weaponry and leaving the population defenseless.

President Obama asserted that the United States was ready to engage. America would intervene in Iraq to provide the country with security and to protect U.S. interests.16 Obama was not the only leader to comment on the Iraq issue. Russian President Vladimir Putin called Maliki and offered his support for efforts to remove terrorist elements. These international initiatives were not limited to verbal statements from leaders of foreign nations. On June 23, 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Baghdad to investigate. The presidents of the United States and Russia had a telephone discussion concerning ISIS advance in Iraq. Further support came from Iran, which would supply Iraq with military equipment upon demand from the Baghdad administration.

Barzani stated that his armed forces would not retreat from the places they controlled. Following that declaration, Iraqi armed forces initiated an operation to take Tikrit back from ISIS domination. However, ISIS would not be deterred. On June 29, 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham declared its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph. Maliki replied that the declaration of a caliphate by ISIS posed a significant threat to the region and that no country was safe from the ISIS threat.

Maliki’s concerns were justified: Kurdish Peshmerga forces were defeated by ISIS fighters, who seized several towns in northern Iraq. On its way, ISIS captured several towns with Christian populations. Thousands of Christians fled their homes. Refugees — Christians, Yazidis and Turkmens sought safe haven in the north. Some members of minority groups who refused to bend to ISIS militants were executed. Yazidis, one of the smallest and oldest monotheistic religious minorities in the world, were targeted by ISIS attacks for being non-Islamic influences. The militants believed that “because of the heterodox structure of their religion,” Yazidis deserved to be persecuted.17 They were forced out of their homeland, and tens of thousands of them are besieged on Mount Sinjar with little food and water. Although the United Nations and countries including Turkey and the United States have delivered supplies, many refugees are still stranded on a mountaintop.

The United Nations has declared the highest level of emergency in Iraq,18 claiming that the conditions in the country are deteriorating. The UN Security Council asked the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to work rapidly to establish a government that would maintain the country’s integrity and reduce sectarian struggles. The Obama administration and the Security Council pledged to back Prime Minister al-Abadi in the formation of an inclusive government in an effort to reduce sectarian crises. Meanwhile, an announcement came from Paris that France would send arms to the Kurds, and Australia’s prime minister promised to contribute to a humanitarian airdrop mission.

Despite the supportive stance of the international community, ISIS militants refused to halt their operations and threatened to advance toward oil-rich Erbil, the capital of the KRG. The situation was becoming more critical; ISIS fighters had taken possession of weapons abandoned by fleeing Iraqi troops. Heavily armed ISIS forces attempted to best the Peshmerga forces defending Erbil. At that point, U.S. concerns escalated further. Erbil was the site of a U.S. consulate, thousands of Americans and considerable U.S. assets. The United States, having left Iraq militarily in 2011, was once again preparing to engage in a direct military role.


ISIS militants were already within 25 miles of Erbil. U.S. military officials were astonished at their rapid advance. American aircraft began bombing ISIS targets on August 8, 2014, to protect the Kurdish regional capital. Several ISIS positions in Mahmour near Erbil and some vehicles on their way to the city were hit by U.S. bombs. Although American operations raised the morale of Peshmerga forces to some extent, these operations neither undermined the overall capability of ISIS nor stopped its operations in other parts of the country.

Another difficulty was the shifting tactics of the militant forces in northern Iraq. U.S. airstrikes were targeted to prevent or at least slow the ISIS advance toward Erbil, whereas a shift in ISIS tactics posed a new challenge. According to American officials, before the American airstrikes, ISIS was moving in a well-organized manner in a strategic framework with military objectives. However, after the American airstrikes, ISIS shifted to traditional insurgency tactics and began to blend in with the population. Identifying targets and conducting attacks was becoming much more difficult. Although American airstrikes and assistance supported the Iraqi and Kurdish forces in reducing the ISIS advance near Erbil, American officials stated that U.S. help was not a complete solution for the crisis in Iraq.

Additionally, the American perspective suggested that, as a result of political missteps, the Iraqi army was very disadvantaged. The withdrawal of talented Iraqi officers from duty led to a weakening of the armed forces, facilitating the advance of ISIS throughout the country. ISIS militants were also supported by the Sunni populations in both Iraq and Syria. Unless support from these populations ended, ISIS was not likely to be defeated. Foreign assistance could only contain the militants for a short time.

The ISIS reply to U.S. military assistance was swift. In November 2012, U.S. journalist James Foley was captured by ISIS militants in Syria. He was given a prepared statement to read, claiming that the recent U.S. strikes would be the reason for his execution. On August 19, 2014, ISIS released a video showing his beheading. The video showed ISIS militants threatening to behead another U.S. journalist, Steven Sotloff, who had been kidnapped in Syria in the summer of 2013. The militants said that whether Sotloff would be executed depended on the next decision of President Obama. Sotloff was executed by ISIS militants on September 2, 2014. These deaths would be followed by the execution of a British aid worker.


Iraq is facing a burgeoning multidimensional crisis. New developments emerge every day that pull the country further into chaos, not to mention major issues whose roots date back into history. One of these relates to the Kurdish question.

The Kurdish population has long been seeking independence. It acquired an increased level of autonomy due to cooperation with the United States during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The KRG has become a federal unit that intends to transform its territories into a completely independent state. However, the goals of the KRG were hampered after the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011. The Iraqi government began to pursue a policy of centralization that undermined the power-sharing principle. This fomented discontent among the Kurds and a sense of exclusion from the political and bureaucratic process.

In addition, the Kurdish population complained about the absence of recognition of their autonomy by the central government, as well as an inequality in the distribution of economic resources.19 The Kurds developed feelings of resentment toward the central government and became unwilling to remain part of Iraq.20 In the face of recent turmoil, Iraqi Kurds have increased their influence, and Kurdish Peshmerga control strategic regions.

As ISIS advanced toward Baghdad and government forces deserted or left their positions, a power vacuum emerged. Consequently, Kurdish forces were able to control disputed regions that they pledged to defend. Oil-rich Kirkuk was not to be ignored. Following Peshmerga reinforcement of control, KRG President Massoud Barzani made clear that it was time for the Iraqi Kurds to decide their own destiny. The goal of the Iraqi Kurds would be realized in their quest for a referendum in the disputed regions.21 However, the central government was not eager to meet this Kurdish demand.

Power struggles among political groups add to the complexity of the situation in Iraq. Internal problems among ethnic and religious groups have led to segregation. In this atmosphere of disintegration, further damaged by the formation of a security gap, militant groups such as ISIS have found opportunity to advance throughout the country.


Several assessments can be advanced regarding the ethno-religious structure of Iraq. The Shiites with 60 percent of the population, are concentrated in the south. The Sunnis constitute 25 percent and reside in the center of the country. The Kurds live in the north and constitute 15 percent of the population. The three groups seek equal rights and political representation and equal distribution of economic resources. However, the shortcomings of Iraq’s administrative system and the government’s inefficiency have inflamed sectarian divisions, paving the way for extremist forces such as ISIS. As a result, tension among these groups accelerated even further.

If ISIS forces continue to advance and the region is turned into a battlefield for these sectarian groups, the country could split, with an independent Kurdish state in the north, a Shiite state in the south and a Sunni state in the center. The region would be further destabilize, and even more people would flee to neighboring countries.

The division of Iraq would not be easy to maintain; there are no clear ethno-sectarian borders. A violent struggle to determine boundaries, could lead to sectarian cleansing and a long series of wars with no decisive winner in the short run and a high level of casualties.

Furthermore, it can be argued that hopes for Kurdish independence were once again awakened as the Peshmerga forces seized authority in Kirkuk, affording them control over a large source of oil production. Feeling confident that they could guarantee their economic future, the KRG asked for a referendum on the future of disputed regions. The central government attempted to prevent this re-formation of Iraqi boundaries. In addition, reactions from other neighbors, such as Turkey and Iran, were significant factors in determining the KRG’s insistence on independence. Turkey has been concerned that Iraqi Kurdish independence could initiate separatism inside its own territory,22 and Iran demonstrated its opposition in July 2014, by closing its border with the KRG. In any case, the potential independence of the Kurdish region would diminish the strength of the central government, deepen sectarian gaps and lead to the end of territorial integrity in Iraq.

Third, there is the probability that the current struggle between the Kurds and the Arabs and the Sunnis and the Shiites would continue, diminishing the hope of inclusive government where all groups would cooperate and be equally represented. The burden of the violence would be felt significantly throughout all populations. In a vicious circle, the lack of an inclusive government would instigate more conflict inviting outside interventions.


Twenty-eight NATO members held a summit in Newport, South Wales, UK, September 4-5, 2014. The summit made clear that ISIS actions posed a threat to the security of member states and stressed that NATO would not hesitate to take the necessary precautions. The members reached unanimous agreement on the need for rapid action against ISIS forces; 10 nations forged a coalition to combat ISIS militants in Iraq, which could then become a means of conducting interventions.23 Based on the U.S. emphasis on the significance of international cooperation,24 President Obama declared that the coalition should not remain limited to Western countries. Sunni-majority nations and regional actors such as Turkey should participate. In his declaration, Obama implied that Western powers would not be sending ground troops to the region for military intervention.

Several days later, on September 12, Obama made public the authorization given to the Pentagon: to kill ISIS leader al-Baghdadi. He further clarified the American decision to escalate the war and intensify the airstrikes against ISIS. Again, the formation of an international coalition against ISIS was met with a brutal response. A British aid worker, David Haines, kidnapped in Syria in 2013 and later sold to ISIS by Syrian opposition members, was displayed in a video reading a script blaming his government for participating in a coalition against ISIS. Before he was beheaded by an ISIS militant, he said that David Cameron was responsible for his death.25 The militant was then seen on video with another British captive and announced that, unless Britain ceased its involvement in the fight against ISIS, the world would continue to witness more of these incidents.

There is a strong likelihood that the international coalition’s airstrikes against ISIS forces will continue to have a limited effect. This is also due to the conflict between Israel and Palestine and the Western the U.S. support for Israel. This injustice contributes to ideological affinity among radicals consolidating their power. The jihadi spirit and the commitment of radical militants to holy war seem to be easily triggered by foreign interference. Under these circumstances, the crisis in Iraq could worsen. It is not rational to assume that the region would achieve peace and stability through the military involvement of an outside force. Adding to the dilemma are rivalries over regional dominance between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the question of how effective countries would be if they cooperated with the United States against ISIS. Time will tell whether ISIS can maintain control over the territories it has conquered and sustain its advances in a region it has severely overburdened.


1 Abdulgani Bozkurt, “Sıfır Sorun’dan Sıfır Çözüm’e: Türkiye, Suriye Politikasından Dolayı Bölgede Dostsuz mu Kalıyor?” Ortadoğu Analiz 4, no. 42 (2012): 40-41.

2 Ed Blanche, “Al Qaeda: The Caliphate Cometh?”, Middle East 451 (2014): 14.; Michael J. Totten, “Arab Spring or Islamist Winter,” World Affairs 174, no. 5 (2012): 40.

3 David Rieff, “Reckless Ardor: Yesterday Iraq, Today Syria,” Commonweal 140, no. 11 (2013): 9.

4 NCAFP, “The Middle East at Crossroads,” American Foreign Policy Interests: The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy 35, no. 4 (2013): 230.

5 Paul R. Pillar, “U.S. Foreign Policy and the Future of the Middle East,” (symposium, Obama’s Foreign Policy and the Future of the Middle East, Washington, DC, July 21, 2014) Middle East Policy 21, no. 3 (2014): 22. doi: 10.111/mepo. 12079.

6 Hassan Mneimneh, “Can the World Afford to Condone the ‘Divided States of Syria?’” The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs 49, no. 3 (2014): 4.

7 Ed Blanche, “Al Qaeda: The Caliphate Cometh?” 2014, 12.

8 “IOM Tracks Iraqi Displacement as 500,000 Flee Fighting in Mosul,” International Organization for Migration, accessed June 11, 2014,

9 Maliki announced on state TV that he would resign as PM to end the quagmire in the country. He added that his resignation would enhance the political process and the formation of the new government. When he had previously refused to resign after eight years in power, he was blamed for escalating the chaos in the country. As a result, he asked Haider al-Abadi to form a government and withdrew his candidacy.

10 Mather, “The Arab Spring and its Unexpected Consequences,” 2014, 83.

11 Blanche, “Al Qaeda: The Caliphate Cometh?” 2014, 14.

12 Pillar, “U.S. Foreign Policy and the Future of the Middle East,” 2014, 16-17. doi: 10.111/mepo. 12079.

13 Editorial, “U.S. adds 350 troops in Iraq – raising number of soldiers in embattled country to more than 1000,” Daily News, September 2, 2014, accessed September 2, 2014.

14 Blanche, “Al Qaeda: The Caliphate Cometh?” 2014, 14.

15 Ibid., 16.

16 Thomas R. Mattair, “U.S. Foreign Policy and the Future of the Middle East,” (symposium, Obama’s Foreign Policy and the Future of the Middle East, Washington, DC, July 21, 2014) Middle East Policy 21, no. 3 (2014): 1. doi: 10.111/mepo. 12079.

17 Sebastian Maisel, “Syria’s Yezidis in the Kurd Dagh and the Jazira: Building Identities in a Heterodox Community,” The Muslim World 103, no. 1 (2013): 39.

18 Julian Borger, “Iraq Humanitarian Crisis has Reached Highest Level, UN Aid Officials Warn,” The Guardian, August 14, 2014.

19 For example, the central government of Iraq was uncomfortable with the KRG signing a contract with the U.S. oil company ExxonMobil and the plan for a pipeline project negotiated with Turkey. In return, it was announced by the central government of Iraq that these independent agreements of the KRG would undermine the unity of the country.

20 Burak Bilgehan Özpek, “Democracy or Partition: Future Scenarios for the Kurds of Iraq,” Insight Turkey 14, no. 3(2012): 127.

21 Barış Doster, “Ortadoğu’daki Kamplaşma: Bölgesel Görünümlü Küresel Saflaşma, The Polarization in the Middle East: Regional-looking Global Polarization,” Ortadoğu Analiz 5, no. 53 (2013): 84.

22 Erol Kurubaş, “Arap Baharında Eklemlenen Kürt Bölgeleri ve Türk Dış Politikasına Etkileri, Articulation of the Kurdish Regions in the Arab Spring and Its Impacts on Turkish Foreign Policy,” Ortadoğu Analiz 5, no. 54 (2013): 21.

23 Robert A. Pape, “When Duty Calls, A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention,” International Security 37, no. 1 (2012): 58.

24 Donette Murray, “Military Action but not as We Know It: Libya, Syria and the Making of an Obama Doctrine,” Contemporary Politics 19, no. 2 (2013): 150.

25 Editorial, “Will ISIS Beheading of David Haines Spur Britain to Conduct Airstrikes?,” NBC NEWS, September 14, 2014, accessed September 14, 2014,

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top