Terrorism & Insurgency

Analysis: After ISIL seizes key territory in offensive across northern Iraq what happens next?

13 June 2014

A burnt-out Iraqi armoured vehicle in Mosul. Credit: PA

Following the collapse of security forces in Mosul and the advance of militant group ISIL towards Baghdad, IHS Jane’s looks at the scenarios that may unfold in the coming days and weeks:

Next steps for ISIL

ISIL is almost certain to attempt to exploit the current momentum of its offensive in northern Iraq and seize as much territory as possible in an attempt to maintain serious political pressure on the government.

It also appears likely that the group will strike east as far as Kirkuk but may well halt before it encroaches on territory controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). More probable is that the group will focus on pushing south, through Salah ad-Din, towards Baghdad in an attempt to threaten the city from the north as well as from the east through its gains in Anbar.

Deploying sectarian militias could be a trap

With the reported poor performance of the Iraqi security forces over the past several days, the government may be forced to involve Shia Muslim militia groups in the effort to repulse ISIL. The group may be aiming for just such a scenario as this will play once more into its narrative of presenting itself as the defender of Iraq’s Sunni population against the sectarian Shia government.

The Iraqi government needs to act in a careful and considered manner in its response to ISIL’s offensive in order to avoid handing the group a major propaganda and recruitment boost.

Iraq’s uncontrolled border with Syria grows; greater freedom of movement of men and material

In addition to its impact in Iraq, ISIL’s operations in Ninawa will also have a broader impact on its concurrent campaign in Syria. Firstly, from a logistical perspective, the capture of territory in Ninawa broadens the extent of Iraq’s border with Syria that is effectively no longer controlled by the government, allowing greater freedom of movement of men and materiel across the border between the two theatres.

New stock piles of light and heavy weaponry, cash, military vehicles to flow into Syria

This was doubly significant given the large quantity of light and heavy weaponry, military vehicles, and money seized by ISIL during the capture of Mosul. With police and army bases completely abandoned, the group’s access to small-arms and equipment was significant. Parliamentary speaker Nujaifi stated on 10 June that all the weapons left by security forces were “under the control of the militants”. Further underlining this was a series of images posted by ISIL on social media showing captured weapons caches and security force vehicles. Much of this materiel will likely be moved across the border into the desert area of eastern Syria, which ISIL has been using as a staging ground for attacks in both Iraq and northern Syria.

Mosul could be staging ground for future operations, Islamic state

Although by no means certain, if ISIL proved capable of holding Mosul over the medium term and further expanding its territorial holdings, the impact on the group’s operations in both Iraq and Syria would likely be momentous.

Not only would it help to facilitate the movement of arms, goods, and people across the border, Mosul could also become a major staging ground for the group to expand its campaign into central and southern Iraq. In terms of recruitment and propaganda, the city would also likely become a major rallying point for supporters of ISIL regionally and internationally, with the group able to realistically claim that it was an Islamic state in more than just name.

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