Surprise! No one was surprised by ISIS sweep

When ISIS sacked Mosul and Tikrit and threatened Kirkuk and Baghdad, the world seemed shocked — especially the Obama administration, which had long maintained that Iraq could defend its own borders. The sudden change in fortunes exposed how hollow the Iraqi army has become and highlighted the power manipulation of America’s ally Nouri al-Maliki, which left Iraq divided along sectarian lines in its greatest crisis since the civil war of 2006-7. Last week, former State Department consultant Ali Khedery revealed how unsurprising this surprise actually was, and Eli Lake followed up with fresh sources that make clear how long the Obama White House knew that this was coming:

On November 1, 2013, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited the White House, and made a rather stunning request. Maliki, who celebrated when the last U.S. troops left his country in 2011, asked Obama to quietly send the military back into Iraq and help his beleagured Air Force develop targets for air strikes; that’s how serious the threat from Sunni insurgents led by the extremist group ISIS had become.

Twelve days later, Brett McGurk, a deputy assistant secretary of state and the Obama administration’s senior U.S. official in Baghdad since the crisis began last month, presented to Congress a similarly dark warning. ISIS was launching upwards of 40 suicide bombers a month, he said, encouraged in part by the weakness of Maliki’s military and the aggressively anti-Sunni policies of the Shi’ite prime minister. It was the kind of ominous report that American intelligence agencies had been delivering privately for months. McGurk added that ISIS had “benefited from a permissive operating environment due to inherent weaknesses of Iraqi security forces, poor operational tactics, and popular grievances, which remain unaddressed, among the population in Anbar and Nineweh provinces.”

Maliki’s requests were rebuffed; McGurk’s warnings went largely unheeded. The problem for Obama was that he had no good policy option in Iraq. On the one hand, if Obama had authorized the air strikes Maliki began requesting in January, he would strengthen the hand of an Iraqi prime minister who increasingly resembled the brutal autocrat U.S. troops helped unseat in 2003. Maliki’s heavy handed policies—such as authorizing counter-terrorism raids against Sunni political leaders with no real links to terrorism—sowed the seeds of the current insurrection in Iraq. …

Two months later, ISIS captured the strategically important city of Fallujah in Anbar province. Five month after that, Iraq’s second-largest city—Mosul, in Nineweh province—fell to ISIS and an army of Sunni insurgents. At the time, senior Obama administration officials went out of their way to proclaim just how impossible-to-predict the collapse of Mosul was. But interviews with a dozen U.S. and Iraqi intelligence officials, diplomats, and policy makers reveal a very different story. A catastrophe like the fall of Mosul wasn’t just predictable, these officials say. They repeatedly warned the Obama administration that something like this was going to happen. With seemingly no good choices to make in Iraq, the White House wasn’t able to listen.

Be sure to read it all. The catalyst for the collapse was Maliki’s sectarian turn, but that was enabled by the complete withdrawal of US forces and the washing of hands on Iraq by the Obama administration. Without that influence and pressure on the ground, Maliki cut out the Sunnis and the Kurds from power in Baghdad and purged them from the military. That left the army short on resources and pushed Sunni tribal leaders from their Anbar Awakening posture into the arms of the enemy, and convinced the Kurds that they had no stake in a united Iraq.

The political and strategic losses that resulted are devastating, but hardly a surprise. Neither will the cultural losses cause much surprise, although they will be shocking — and are already under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

Soon afterward the minions of the self-appointed caliph of the freshly self-declared Islamic State,Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, paid a visit to the Mosul Museum. It has been closed for years for restoration, ever since it was looted along with many of Iraq’s other institutions in the wake of the culturally oblivious American-led invasion of 2003. But the Mosul Museum was on the verge of reopening, at last, and the full collection had been stored there.

“These groups of terrorists—their arrival was a brutal shock, with no warning,” Iraqi National Museum Director Qais Hussein Rashid told me when he visited Paris last week with a mission pleading for international help. “We were not able to take preventive measures.”

Indeed, museum curators and staff were no better prepared than any other part of the Iraqi government. They could have learned from al-Baghdadi’s operations in neighboring Syria that a major source of revenue for his insurgency has been the sale of looted antiquities on the black market. As reported in The Guardian, a windfall of intelligence just before Mosul fell revealed that al-Baghdadi had accumulated a $2 billion war chest, in part by selling off ancient artifacts from captured Syrian sites. But the Iraqi officials concerned with antiquities said the Iraqi intelligence officers privy to that information have not shared it with them.

So the risk now—the virtual certainty, in fact—is that irreplaceable history will be annihilated or sold into the netherworld of corrupt and cynical collectors. And it was plain when I met with Rashid and his colleagues that they are desperate to stop it, but have neither the strategy nor the resources to do so.

At least the museum will likely be left standing. The same can’t be said for ten or more ancient shrines in the same region, which Baghdadi’s forces demolished, and which they videotaped to demonstrate their total control in the so-called Islamic State:

The public appearance and video released by Baghdadi’s organization sends its own message of permanence:

The leader of an Islamist militant group that has seized control of territory from Syria to Iraq made a rare public appearance last week, urging his followers and other Muslims to use the holy month of Ramadan to escalate their jihad against “the enemies of God,” according to a video posted online Saturday.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared leader of the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State, which declared the restoration of the medieval Muslim caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria last week, is purportedly shown in the video preaching to followers Friday at a mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

The SITE Intelligence group, which tracks extremist movements and statements, confirmed Baghdadi’s appearance in the video, which identifies him as “Caliph Ibrahim.” Baghdadi is a nom de guerre. He is also known as Ibrahim al-Samarrai. The video, published by the Islamic State’s media wing, would be the first that Baghdadi has made, as well as marking one of the few instances that the reclusive leader has appeared in public.

The Iraqi military seemed to have an opportunity to eliminate the so-called Caliph, but apparently was unable or unwilling to press an attack. How many more opportunities will Baghdadi give them?