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The military victories that the ISIS continues to reap are the fruit of a number of different circumstances, both political and military in nature.

On the political level, the evaluation of the degree of dangerousness of the ISIS is influenced by the fact that some of the countries in the region, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, see Iran's future hegemonic role in the region - both in its coming to the rescue of the Alawite regime in Syria and in supporting the Iraqi regime - as the main threat at hand. This feeling was reinforced when Teheran managed to reach an agreement with the USA regarding its nuclear program. It is because of this fear that Ankara, Riyadh and Doha have decided to increase their military support for the factions that, albeit radical in nature, fight against Bashar al Assad's regime. The side effect of this effort is that both the ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra come out reinforced from the struggle. The crawling war between Sunni and Shiites has gained precedence over the jihadist threat, which is – perhaps not by hazard – of Sunni origin.

Ankara's fears

Turkey fears that the Syrian Kurds could manage to control a portion of the Syrian territory along the border where, in the future, they could try to establish their own State. That the Turkish 'ambiguity' was aimed at preventing such a possibility is by now a widely accepted truth. The Islamic 'volunteers' of the ISIS were allowed absolute freedom to enter and leave the Turkish territory while a guilty silence was kept on their arms traffics and on the smuggling of the oil coming from the fields controlled by the Islamic State.

Lately, this approach got worse: Turkey became an active party in supplying the Jihadists with weapons, making their military capacity grow exponentially. The dirty job was carried out by the National Organization of Information, the MIT (Milli Istihbarat Teskilati), the Turkish intelligence agency founded in 1965 which, despite the security precautions taken, was caught right-handed with a load of weapons hidden among medicinal supplies at the border with Syria.

Turkey also refused to allow the US to use the aerial facility of Incirlik to bomb the ISIS, asking that such treatment be reserved only for Assad's army. It is not a coincidence that, in a recent interview on the international broadcaster Al Jazeera – controlled by the Emir of Qatar – the head of al Nusra, Abu Mohamed al Golani, claimed that their main goal is that of ousting Assad, not fighting the US. The statement was thought as a reassuring message aimed at “quieting” Washington which, on the other hand, is more worried about the advancing Islamic militias rather than the permanency of Bashar al Assad in Damascus.

The real question is whether the present policy of the main Sunni countries in the region is valid, seen that the imminent danger – that of the advancing ISIS army – is underestimated in favor of a potential future threat: that of the Iranian Shiite hegemony in the Middle East.

A dangerous game

This is especially true of Saudi Arabia, where recent attacks have targeted the Shiite minority. The condescending of the Gulf countries with regards to the ISIS finds its justification in the confrontation between the Shiites and Sunnis. This is clearly expressed in the strategy of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The more sectarian the struggle and the more it takes on connotations against heresy or apostasy represented by Shiism (and Alawism), the more sympathy and following it produces among the Sunni population. It is not by hazard that the TV channel of the Emir of Qatar diffused a poll which states that al Baghdadi's Caliphate is popular with 80% of the Sunni community.

It is still not clear whether the collapse of Assad's regime in Syria could produce a wave of instability that meets the interests of those that are trying to cause its fall. If Syria is destroyed by civil war and in the hands of radical Islamic factions, it would fuel further instability in a region where tensions are already strong. It is hard to say how Turkey would benefit from such a scenario, since it would share its border with a destabilized country headed by the ISIS. The same is true of the monarchies in the Gulf, because the Caliphate, in its theological essence, sees itself legitimized in taking the helm of the Islamic masses, the “umma”. And in the domino effect that the destruction of Syria would generate, it would be wise to think of the consequences on the stability of Jordan, Lebanon and on the security of Israel.

Saddam Hussein

A heavy legacy

Apart from the short-sighted policies of the Gulf countries, which underestimate the Jihadist threat and overestimate the Shiite one, the successes of the ISIS on the ground have other, military, reasons. Firstly, they are caused by the scarce reliability of the Iraqi army, which chose to run when faced with the ISIS in Mosul and Ramadi, leaving an arsenal of weapons and vehicles behind them for the taking. In substance, the ISIS is favored not by its military prowess, but by the scarce belligerence of the enemy troops that it encounters.

The reason for this is rooted in the past: The fall of Saddam Hussain in 2003 and the consequent disbanding of the Iraqi army – through a decree of the US administrator at the time, Paul Bremer - and its successive reconstruction by the Shiites who, until that day, had been excluded from all things military. In practice, in 2003/2004 the Iraqi army was rebuilt from scratch without the supervision of qualified cadres with past military experiences. This bad start was immediately followed by another flawed step: the Coalition, especially its Anglo-American part, didn't trust the new armed force and therefore refused to provide them with adequate weapons and/or training.

From the day of Saddam's ousting until the present, the only component capable of waging war in Iraq were the Peshmerga from Kurdistan. Those same Kurds that, because of Turkish susceptibility and of the threat of an ethnic re-partition of Iraq, are not receiving heavy weapons from the United States. The little aid that they receive does not arrive directly; it is made to pass through Baghdad first. As for the Sunnis who fought for Saddam Hussain, they have mostly joined the ranks of the ISIS by now.

Today's Iraqi army is the direct consequence of those circumstances.

The American stalemate

The above mentioned circumstances explain the beatings suffered by the Iraqi army and the recent statements by the US Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, who accused the them of not wanting to fight. The Iraqi PM Haider al Abadi and the US Vice President, Joe Biden, tried to ease the tension between the parties, but haven't managed to change the situation.

Before their withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, the US had spent over 25 billion dollars to train and equip the Iraqi army; a financial effort that hadn't produced the results that they hoped for. US President Barack Obama was quite clear in a recent public statement when he said that “If the Iraqis don't have the will to fight for their own security, we cannot do it in their stead”.

In other words, the US is willing to support the Iraqi government in its war against the jihadists, but refuses to send their troops back on the ground, especially now that Abadi's regular troops are supported by Shiite volunteers, al Hashd al Shaabi (popular militias), and by Iran. This means that roughly 100 thousand Iraqi soldiers are currently operating independently.

Presently, there are roughly 3.000 US soldiers in Iraq, 800 of which are there to protect US structures and personnel, while the remaining 2.200 are supposed to supply training and logistic support to the local security forces. The support given to the Syrian rebels meets the same difficulties because there is a divergence in principles and interests: the rebels want to fight Assad, not the ISIS.

haider al abadi
Haider al Abadi

A ghost army

The number of soldiers that the Iraqi army has at its disposal is hard to evaluate. In 2009 they were about 210 thousand; the same number was confirmed in 2011, when the US left. Today, there are rumors that the number has decreased to approximately 140 thousand units, 48 thousand of which are not in fighting conditions. On paper, there are 14 divisions made up of a total of 263 battalions, but it's just empirical data. Two of these divisions, made up of approximately 30 thousand men, were the ones that escaped from Mosul when faced with 1.200 ISIS militiamen. It is not surprising that the same scene was played out in Ramadi on May 17 last year.

The inefficiency of the Iraqi army has various other origins as well, regardless of the mistakes made by Bremer in 2003. There is its ethnic composition: 90% of soldiers are Shiite and the remaining Sunni portion is reluctant to be employed in Sunni regions under the command of Shiites. The same is true of the Shiites employed in Shiite regions. The religious fracture in the country is so profound that none of the soldiers want to fight against their own brothers.

The numbers of deserters is also very high, about 2 to 3 hundred units per day, and the recruitment is slow due to the aforementioned religious divisions. Then there is the problem of corruption: the army officers often keep the money destined to the soldiers, take part of the funds for food and logistical supplies and produce disaffection among the troops. One striking case was that of the so-called “ghost soldiers”: nonexistent troops that were meant to inflate the number of soldiers in the roster so that the officers could pocket their salaries. This phenomenon was opposed by the present Prime Minister, Abadi, who fired about 40 corrupt officers. In total, the “ghost soldiers” are allegedly 50 thousand; a third of the presumed members of the army.

Then there are organizational issues: logistics don't work, maintenance is nearly non-existent, there are communication problems within the chain of command, strategic planning is superficial at best, access to training is limited and weapons are lacking.

The inefficient army is sided with inefficient intelligence services, always because of the same 2003/2004 dismantling of the existing structures and the subsequent creation of new structures without qualified personnel in them. The reasons: lack of capabilities and operative attitude, thus substantial inefficiency; scarce vigilance over the territory; the designation of high-ranking officials being based on ethnic-religious criteria and on political portioning; a lack of coordination between structures, both on the analysis and operative level; the doubling up of roles in the technical and administrative milieu; lacking organizational and technical means; bureaucracy, superficial training and a scarce tendency to rely on new technologies.

The only line of continuity between the old intelligence services of Saddam and the new ones is the perdurable abuse of power, the recourse to torture and the systematic violation of human rights.

Without a way out

In 2013, during the mandate of the former PM Nouri al Maliki, the figure of a Political Commissioner in the Armed Forces was created. The promotions in the military were no longer dispensed based on meritocratic criteria, but on the sole basis of political loyalty. These circumstances were all inherited by the current PM, al Abadi, and currently have a very negative bearing on the morale of the Iraqi army. It is not easy to persuade a Sunni to fight for his country when most of his brethren live in areas that are controlled by the ISIS. All of these elements show a clear state of social dismemberment that Iraq has undergone since the fall of Saddam Hussein: Sunni and Shiites hate each other, while the Kurds live in a situation of full independence from the State. Last but not least, the deployment of Shiite paramilitary units alongside the regular army in the fight against the ISIS have increased religious and sectarian differences.

All of this explains why the ISIS controls a third of Iraq and two-thirds of Syria. The more successes are reaped by the Islamic militias, the more volunteers join their ranks. Today, according to Iraqi PM Haider al Abadi, 60% of the ISIS fighters are foreigners. This also explains the reluctance of the US to provide sophisticated equipment and weapons for them, since there is a high risk that these could land into the hands of the ISIS.

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