June, 10th, 2014 - The take-over of large parts of Mosul by ISIS has huge repercussions, some in the short term, quite a few in the long term. All of them are scary. None of them allow for any side interested in the future of Syria, Iraq or, in fact, the Middle East, to not at least think about possible reactions.
Why? Because Mosul is not any city. It is a big city, it is a commercial centre, it is the gateway to Syria and it is home to a diverse ethnic mix - including many Sunnis, but also Kurds, Christian, Yezids, among other groups.
As long as ISIS can hold on to Mosul, a major hub is added to the loosely connected chain of islands under ISIS influence, now ranging from the outskirts of Aleppo in Syria to parts of central Iraq. It is telling and concerning that Iraq's security services apparently didn't put up much of a fight but instead seem to have left in a hurry. Given that the state of Iraq didn't manage to regain control over Faluja and Ramadi, I don't see how that is going to happen in the case of Mosul.
It is going to be vital now what the Kurdish factions decide to do. They are probably the only ones who could make a difference at this point, but I assume they will, for the time being at least, concentrate on protecting the Kurdish areas in the environment of Mosul rather than challenging ISIS full-on.
Given that, ISIS stands to exploit their seizure of Mosul - which includes, according to reasonable reports, not only weaponry and military vehicles, but also funds. Some of these additional resources will be poured into the Syrian struggle, making life harder for those Syrian rebels fighting the Syrian regime and ISIS at the same time. Those are the immediate repercussions.
But it is also worthwhile noting that ISIS is coming closer to making good on their promise of statehood (not in any traditional, international law kind of sense, of course). I am ready to call their entity a pseudo-state at this point. Or perhaps even a proto-state. Why is that? Because they have displayed a learning curve as far as governing goes. Wherever ISIS takes control, the following things happen: Implementation of a harsh version Sharia law; supplying citizens with food; changing school curricula; training Imams; offering other services. Recently, e.g., ISIS boasted they had set in place a consumer protection agency. I don't think many Syrians like this style of governance; but they may, in many cases, prefer enduring it to fighting against ISIS.
Now all of this is concerning enough. But the situation is even more concerning because ISIS isn't and never was about either Iraq or Syria. ISIS (even back then when it was the official Iraqi branch of al-Qaida) was about creating a coherent area of influence, ready to serve as an operational basis. National borders don't mean anything to ISIS. (And it is telling that in the wake of the fall of Mosul, some of their pundits declared the end of the Sykes-Picot-borders). To put in different terms: ISIS isn't fighting against anyone as much as they are trying to gain from the current situation in Iraq and Syria. And they are having successes. The momentum is on their side.
This is why we may have reached a point where we need to talk about scenarios - because I, for one, believe that this debate will start soon. Who has a mandate, who feels a responsibility, who is capable of taking on ISIS?
As I see it, no-one within Syria and Iraq has the power by himself to accomplish this. The Iraqi state already failed in Faluja and Ramadi. The Kurdish militias may not be strong enough. Jabhat al-Nusra and their allies in Syria aren't either.
But allowing ISIS to go on should not be an option. ISIS fighters may not be a large force, but they also shouldn't be underestimated. They will not stop at Mosul. Why should they? So what's next?
ISIS is currently exercising control over an area almost the size of Belgium. That is enough to have anyone worry. If they consolidate their position, if they are able to move resources and fighters, train fighters and make plans for expansion, they will do just that. The result would be that the problem grows bigger swiftly, with every new territorial gain increasing the risk of terror attacks beyond Iraq and Syria.
I am not a fan of military inventions, as I have stated here before. I also am convinced that the best moment to intervene in Syria has long, long passed and won't come back. But I also believe that it is silly and ignorant to just close one's eyes in the face of this danger.
Clearly, there is no power in sight that would at this point in time propagate intervention. However, I daresay that we will wee a debate about deploying US drones to Iraq in Syria soon - as dangerous as that would be, given the densely populated areas we are talking about here.
I am quite ready to admit that I don't have a solution either. I guess all I am saying is that this problem is not going to go away by itself. So what I would really like to see is an informed debate about options before we find ourselves in a situation where our only option left to us is to discuss measures already taken.
That means that now is the right time to talk scenarios. Even if we may not enjoy that.