BAGHDAD: The jihadist takeover of Iraq’s second city Mosul and a swathe of other northern territory brings the extremists closer to their goal of carving out a cross-border Islamic state, analysts say.
The offensive by jihadists, spearheaded by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), is a significant blow to the Iraqi government and highlights the weakness of its security forces, who will struggle to retake the lost territory.
The militants stormed through Mosul, taking control of the city Tuesday as security forces abandoned uniforms and vehicles to flee.
The militants then overran the surrounding Nineveh province as well as sections of neighboring Kirkuk and Salaheddin provinces.
“The loss of Nineveh province creates a corridor of militancy between Anbar [province], Mosul and the Syrian border which will make it easier to smuggle weapons, funding and fighters between the different battle fronts,” said John Drake, a security analyst with AKE Group.
Anbar, south of Nineveh, is another province where anti-government fighters hold areas including all of one city and part of a second. Jihadists also hold significant territory in eastern Syria.
“ISIS and its [earlier] manifestations have always wanted to control territory and create an Islamist emirate, in which they could impose [Islamic] law and establish training and attack planning centers to maintain the momentum of battle,” Drake said.
“The war in Syria gave these militants the chance to secure such a territory. Their success in doing so likely emboldened their supporters, who realized it was an attainable target.”
ISIS, the most powerful militant group in Iraq, is also a key force in the rebellion against President Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria.
In April, it launched a campaign in Syria’s Deir al-Zor province, which borders Nineveh, aimed at carving out an Islamic state.
The group said it was behind the assault in Nineveh, but other groups may have been involved as well.
“The armed groups want to establish an Islamic state” that would include Mosul, the provinces of Salaheddin, Diyala and Anbar, plus Deir al-Zor and Raqqa in Syria, said Aziz Jabr, a political science professor at Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University.
He also noted that “the fall of a province like Nineveh represents a very dangerous threat to the national security of Iraq.”
Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the jihadists “want a permanent liberated zone in Iraq similar to Raqqa in Syria,” referring to a northern city held by militants.
“The shift is now to more ambitious ground-holding operations, which is a risky tactic but is currently paying off. This Mosul operation and the others this month seem to be the opener for a new ISIS offensive,” Knights said.
The operations showcase ISIS’ strength, he said.
“To undertake any one of the city-wide operations undertaken in June would have been unthinkable two years ago. Now they are able to undertake numerous near-simultaneous operations across Iraq,” he said.
“In terms of quality, ISIS overcame odds in excess of 15-to-1 to seize western Mosul.”
Security forces have so far failed to force militants out of the city of Fallujah and parts of Anbar provincial capital Ramadi, which anti-government fighters have held since the beginning of the year.
Mosul is a far larger city, and retaking it and other areas that have recently fallen to jihadists will pose a major challenge for Iraq’s security forces, which face significant shortcomings in training and discipline.
“It is not reasonable for the defender to collapse with this ease,” Jabr said Tuesday.
Drake noted that the jihadist takeovers will be “a major blow to the morale of the security forces,” while Knights referred to their “calamitous collapse” in the face of the militant offensive.
“Baghdad will be terrified now that this can happen anywhere,” Knights said.