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Iraq: the ISIS crisis

By Peter Coates - posted Friday, 20 June 2014

The bloody progression of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rebel forces to the outskirts of Baghdad continues with a wide range of outcomes possible. The rapid expansion of ISIS (also known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)) has come as a shock. This article attempts to present some issues that have received inadequate attention in mainstream media reporting on the ISIS crisis.

Although Islamic Sunni-Shiite hatreds have existed for around 1,400 years the Sunni rebels of ISIS are an unusually violent problem. This map gives one idea of how central Iraq is in the region and of the refugee (internally displaced people (IDPs)) problem created by ISIS’ advance. This smaller map is of the ISIS advance itself.

ISIS’ presence in Syria and Iraq is probably boosting the risk of international terrorism. It is Iraq’s huge amounts of oil, however, that differentiate Iraq from Syria. Several years of frequent suicide bombings in Iraq have sparked little media attention but ISIS seizing Iraqi regional cities and oilfields has rattled surrounding countries and is driving up world oil prices.


Unlike Syria, with few Westerners, Iraq hosts a large Western foreign contractor-government employee presence due mainly to oil.The UK Daily Mail reports that the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone has around 5,000 personnel making it the largest US embassy in the world. This may indicate that that US embassy is part of a huge diplomatic cocktail circuit or perhaps it has other functional priorities?

A powerful presence of Western government representatives in Iraq also responds to conflicting concerns of Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni neighbours. Iran has reportedly sent as many as 2,000 men from Quds special forces units of Iran's Revolutionary Guard into Iraq to boost defences against ISIS in and around Baghdad. This indicates how close the Shiite leadership of Iraq is to the Shiite’s leading Iran. It is also significant that Iraq has not protested against Syrian airstrikes launched by Syria’s Shiite government against ISIS convoys actually within Iraq (near the town of Al Qaim).

Sunni dominated governments, including Saudi Arabia and smaller Arab Gulf states, are nervous that regionally powerful Iranian forces may combine with Iraq’s to present a large Shiite military threat. Hence ISIS is semi-openly recruiting in Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s neighbours and the international economy generally are also concerned about rapid fluctuations in world oil price and production levels caused by the ISIS crisis.

It is unclear whether US military activity concerning Iraq will mainly be an airstrike or evacuation mission (or both). Iraq’s Sunni dominated neighbours may well decide not to host any US aircraft or drones that might kill ISIS Sunni rebels. To adjust to this limitation the US military reports that a US fleet is now sitting in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf. This fleet consists of: the carrier USS George H.W. Bush (helicopters for evacuation, strike aircraft and intelligence collection); the cruiser USS Philippine Sea (able to fire at least 122 cruise missiles); and three destroyers each able to fire 90 cruise missiles. Also in the fleet is the USS Mesa Verde an amphibious warship that can carry 800 marines, helicopters and Osprey tilt rotorcraft. The Agehas published an article presenting eight military options Obama might be considering.

Baghdad’s location might make a Western evacuation by helicopter or road difficult. Baghdad is a 1,200 km round trip from the US fleet in the Persian Gulf and alternatively it would be a long trip by road south to Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Baghdad is however a short road or helicopter trip to the Iranian border, hence Western talks with Iran probably include evacuation scenarios.

It was unclear whether Abbott’s comments relating to Iraq (when he met President Obama several days ago) ran too far in advance of any consultation with the Australian public, Parliament or Abbott’s own party room (see this youtube). How Australia could aid any US military or evacuation effort is a question mark. Australian assistance might be in the shape of use of one of Australia’s new E-7A Wedgetail aircraft for force communication or one of our Orions to gather intelligence. If the Iraq crisis runs into weeks or months the deployment of one of our ANZAC frigates might contribute to the US fleet effort. Some Australian army special forces might also be sent to contribute to the protection force for the Western community in Baghdad’s Green Zone.


In the last 48 hours Iraq has formerly asked the US to launch airstrikes against ISIS. Critics from the right and left will damn the US for anything it does or doesn’t do. The US is neither all-seeing nor all-powerful. Australia, if it wants to be active in Iraq, cannot act alone so it must follow some country’s lead. With the US inevitably pivoting to Eastern European commitments (Ukraine) and Middle Eastern commitments (ISIS) Australia needs to contribute in some way to the shifting geo-political picture.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Master’s Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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