Mladenov to Brief on the Fall of Mosul to ISIS
This morning (12 June), Special Representative and head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) Nickolay Mladenov will brief Council members on the fall of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, to the Islamic State of the Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The briefing will be via video-conference in consultations at 11:30 a.m., so that Mladenov can brief following an emergency session of the Iraqi parliament to consider Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s request to declare a state of emergency–a significant majority of Sunni and Kurdish blocs boycotted the session and a quorum could not be reached. The US, who is the penholder on Iraq, requested the briefing.
ISIS took Mosul on 10 June following an assault that began five days earlier in Samarra. ISIS fighters took control of government buildings, jails, banks, the airport and military bases stocked with US provided arms, munitions and equipment. Baghdad has said that ISIS was in control of these weapons, had looted the banks of cash and released thousands of prisoners from city jails, some of which may potentially join ranks with ISIS. ISIS has claimed to have already smuggled a large weapons cache back to Syria. Council members will be interested in Mladenov’s assessment of why Iraqi forces were able to largely withstand an attack against Samarra while two divisions of Iraqi forces fled Mosul, apparently offering very little resistance to an attack by only approximately 800-2,000 ISIS fighters. (Samarra is mostly Shi’a and is known for the holy Al-Askari mosque, whereas Mosul is mostly Sunni.)
Council members will also want to know more about the other gains ISIS has made this week, with media reports indicating that ISIS fighters are spreading south toward Baghdad, having seized Tikrit and parts of Baiji, where Iraq’s largest oil refinery is located. With ISIS closing in from Samarra, 125 kilometers to the north, and potentially Fallujah, 75 kilometers from the west, and former Baathist military commanders, including former Vice-President Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, joining the fight against the government, Council members are likely to want Mladenov to address what preparations are in process to secure Baghdad. Given the negative regional security implications of these territorial gains, members will be keen for information on any planned counter-offensive. As ISIS approaches Kurdistan Regional Government-administered areas, Council members may be interested in knowing whether the Kurds are ready to involve the highly disciplined Kurdish peshmerga in a counter-offensive alongside the Iraqi army–it seems the peshmerga took Kirkuk today after Iraqi troops abandoned their post. Any potential military cooperation may involve Baghdad acquiescing to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s pursuit of unilateral oil and gas deals, an issue that has estranged both sides as of late. Mladenov may also be asked about the role, if any, that the Sunni Awakening (Harakat al-Inqadh al-Sunniy) movement could play in militarily countering or complementing ISIS. Given that Iraqi forces fled en masse from Mosul, and the army is reportedly downsizing its presence in ISIS-dominated Anbar province to defend Baghdad, Council members will also be interested to know how this will impact the army operations to retake Fallujah and Ramadi.
Maliki has also asked “friendly governments” for help and given that Iraq relies on good relations with both Iran and the US, Council members may be interested in whether one has come forward to offer any type of assistance. (Media reports say the US has declined requests for the US to carry out air strikes though other types of support remain under discussion.) Iran, a close ally of the Maliki government, is likely to be seriously concerned by the Sunni threat that ISIS poses to the Shi’a government in Iraq and may be ready to increase its cooperation. In fact, the current situation in Iraq offers an opportunity for a rapprochement between Iran and the US, which may also include Turkey, to assist Iraq in curtailing ISIS. Regarding political implications, Council members will be keen to know whether the fall of Mosul will undermine efforts to forge a coalition following the 30 April elections to secure Maliki a third term as prime minister. And finally, they will want an update on what is being done to secure the release of the 49 hostages taken at the Turkish consulate in Mosul, as well as an additional 31 Turkish nationals seized at a Mosul power plant.
Despite near-daily fatal attacks in Iraq over the course of 2013 and in 2014 and the expanding ISIS control over territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria, no specific outcome is expected after today’s briefing. Council members have very recently issued two press statements on ISIS and the rapidly deteriorating situations in both Anbar province on 5 June (SC/11430) and Mosul on 11 June (SC/11437). This increase in Council attention contrasts with the routine and at times tangential consideration of the situation in Iraq every four months which has characterised the Council for years despite repeated warning signs of territorial decomposition and disintegration.
Some Council members view this morning’s consultations as a critical juncture to feed into early discussions on UNAMI’s mandate, which has not significantly changed since the adoption of resolution 1770 in 2007. UNAMI’s mandate ends on 31 July and some members have indicated it may be necessary to take stock and deliver a more strategic response in the next renewal. Some Council members have noted that the same coherence in which the Council approaches the impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon needs to be brought to bear on the Council’s approach to Iraq as well. These Council members, while aware of US sensitivities due to its 2003 invasion of Iraq, have expressed concern that treating Iraq and Syria as discrete situations may not be an approach which can be sustained much longer given the realities on the ground.
Mladenov has highlighted the impact of the Syrian crisis on Iraq’s security with increased intensity in his last three briefings and Council members expect that same message will be strongly delivered again later this morning. He last briefed on 4 June on the deteriorating situation in Anbar province where ISIS has been in control of Fullujah and parts of Ramadi since December 2013. Media reports indicate that ISIS has been expanding its presence in Ninevah province, north of Anbar, for several months before its takeover of Mosul. (Anbar and Ninevah provinces make up the entire western border of Iraq with Syria.) The ongoing expansion of territorial control by ISIS fighters in a contiguous area of eastern Syria and western Iraq has flourished due to a power vacuum in eastern Syria where the regime has neither the inclination nor the capacity to launch major counter-terrorism efforts and severe sectarian political divisions in Iraq which have been exacerbated by the lack of security following the US withdrawal in 2011 and the sectarian policies of the Shi’a-dominated Maliki government.
Inflamed sectarian tension in Iraq has roots that can be traced back to Saddam Hussein and the 2003 US invasion. But the immediate tension is linked to a government crackdown against Sunni protests that began in April 2013, largely due to the fact that the Shi’a-led government was consolidating its hold on power. It is also linked to the anti-terrorism laws which led to mass sweeps and detention of Sunnis. This tension has been compounded by the heavy-handed Iraqi military assault on Fallujah to rout ISIS—which has included aerial bombardment of residential areas. These military operations and the government’s sectarian rhetoric and policies have left large parts of the Sunni population estranged and with little confidence in the government’s willingness or ability to protect their interests or their lives. There has been severe displacement with over 427,000 displaced in the course of six months in Anbar province and media reports indicate up to 500,000 people have fled Mosul just since the ISIS offensive began in earnest on 5 June.
While UNAMI is a political mission not equipped to operationally address these very serious and wide ranging security issues, Council members may nevertheless be interested in Mladenov’s views on how the mission’s mandate can be adjusted to deal with the cross-pollination of the Iraqi and Syrian crises, better serve Iraq’s stability, support the establishment of a more inclusive political system and facilitate a humanitarian response.