ISIS and the battle for Mosul

Ignacio de la Torre. Professor. IE Business School

24 April 2015

Saladino was a Kurd. Born in Tikrit and brought up under the reign of the Emir of Mosul, he managed to unite Syria and Iraq and reverse the course of the crusades. Over eight centuries later, history appears to be repeating itself.

In 1187, in northern Palestine, one of the largest Crusader armies ever seen until then was practically annihilated by the forces of Saladin at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin, marking a turning point in the European war to retake the Holy Land.

Saladin was a Kurd, and his birthplace was Tikrit, the Iraqi city where Saddam Hussein was also born, and that has just been retaken by the Iraqi army from ISIS. After the battle Saladin ordered that the three hundred knights of the orders of Saint John and the Templar who refused to convert to Islam be slaughtered (only one took up the offer, the rest died singing the Miserere). Despite this act of barbarism, Saladin is one of the most interesting leaders of the Crusades, and was generally much more chivalrous than the majority of other figures in the conflict. He began his career serving the powerful emir of Mosul, who had managed to unify Syria and Iraq, and later took power himself (while symbolically recognizing the caliph of Baghdad), unifying Arab territory to include what is today Egypt, giving the Islamic world the economic and demographic power to resist the Crusades, finally expelling the Europeans from the area in 1291.

Many centuries later, the self-styled Islamic Army of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS, IS, or DAESH to use its Arabic acronym) is leading a bloody struggle in precisely the same regions that marked the career of Saladin: Tikrit and Mosul. But just what is the IS, and where did it come from?

The Islamic “army” emerged out of the different Afghan mujahedeen and Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by the Jordanian Al Zarkawi, who was killed in 2006. (1) In 2009, the group was almost wiped out during the US military offensive, but the withdrawal of US forces, and particularly the start of the Syrian offensive in 2010 allowed it to regroup and consolidate its own territory, setting itself apart from Al Qaeda, which continued to operate as a disparate group of terrorist cells. Little by little it extended its control throughout northeastern Iraq, and during the early part of 2014, it managed to take the key cities of Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah.

In Mosul it was able to capture weapons and money from the US-financed Iraqi army, as well as taking over a number of oil wells. Oil, smuggled antiquities, and hostage taking permitted it to raise between one and three million dollars a day. (2) It used this money to finance an army of some 38,000 combatants, of which 18,000 were Syrian and Iraqis, and the remainder foreigners (around a quarter of them from Europe), while setting up the self-proclaimed Califate (al-Baghdadi) with the help of two emirs (one for Syria and one for Iraq, both of them former generals in Saddam Hussein’s army), along with 12 governors.

ISIS then turned its attention to Kobane, a Kurdish city of some 30,000 people close to the Turkish border, where a humanitarian disaster looked set to unfold, given that although the Kurds are also Sunnis, their more liberal interpretation of Islam makes them kafirs, or “impious” in the eyes of IS, meaning that the men would likely be executed and the women and children sold into slavery. As for the Kurdish minority Yazidis (who mix Islam with Zoroastrianism), they are simply takfirs, or heretics, like the Shiites, and all need to be put to death.  The United States gave up Kobane as lost, despite the air support it offered the city’s defenders. But just as the disaster was about to happen, the battle-hardened Kurdish peshmerga were able (with Turkey’s help) to push through, and joint action between the defenders of the city, backed by US air power, defeated ISIS, and Kobane was saved.

The defeat has split ISIS, with some unhappy at the better treatment given to Muslim fighters from Europe; there are also theological divisions (a more radical group has already tried to seize control), as well as divisions over the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot al Kasabeh in January, an act considered impious within most Muslim thinking. (3)

In recent months, the Iraqi army, assisted by Shiite militias and Iranian special forces, have been able to retake Tikrit, despite their supposed lack experience in urban fighting and the lack of support from the local Sunni population.

The next task is to take Mosul. The United States is coordinating an offensive between the Kurdish peshmerga, who will attack from the north, and the Iraqi army and militias, who will push up from the south. In total, some 30,000 men will face ISIS. This could well be the battle that decides more than the future of Iraq; it will also decide the future of a political-religious concept in which we are directly implicated, whether we like it or not.

The caliphate is the political and religious union of the Muslim community. Installed after the death of Mohammed between members of his quraishi tribe, to which al-Baghdadi belongs (4), it was split during the caliphate of Ali and the emergence of the Shia, which means schism in Arabic. But the caliphate came to an end in 1254, when the last caliphate of Baghdad (blond-haired and blue-eyed as a result of generations of Russian concubines) was executed by the Mongol conquerers.

As they were not allowed to spill the blood of a royal personage, he was wrapped in a carpet and kicked to death. The caliphate continued “in the shadow”, first under the Mamelukes, and from 1517 under the Ottoman Turks, until it was formally abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924, an event that upset many Muslims, who for centuries had lived under it, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Almost eight centuries on, it will once again be the Kurdish sunnis, like Saladin, and the Shiite followers of Ali who will take on the radical neo-caliphate in what will be the epic battle of Mosul.

As a French writer said many years ago: Islamism against Islam.

  1. Le Monde Diplomatique, September 1, 2004
  2. Foreign Affairs, March 6, 2005.
  3. The Wall Street Journal, 11 de Febrero
  4. The Atlantic, Marzo de 2015.

 

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