THE second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, is now effectively under the rule of Isis – the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an Islamist terrorist group so extreme that it was expelled from Al Qaeda – and makes the Taliban seem moderate.
Isis now controls huge amounts of land in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Given the rate it is attracting recruits, the speed it is advancing and the almost pathological inability of the Iraqi forces to resist it, it is not remotely fanciful to imagine it taking Baghdad – and even moving closer to its aim of turning all of the Middle East into an Islamic caliphate under its extremist rule.
Taking Mosul matters because it shows how fast Isis is advancing. It matters in practical terms too because Isis now has its hands on huge quantities of US military equipment previously handed over by the Americans to Iraqi forces. And it has all the cash in Mosul’s banks, enabling it to pay for even more weapons.
It’s the same story albeit now writ larger than first played out in Syria when Isis started to become a serious threat. And in all of this what happened in Syria is pivotal. Let me explain.
You might think that the collapse of Iraq is somehow inevitable, the culmination of the chaos that followed the US invasion in 2003 toppling Saddam. But you’d be wrong.
Immediately after the invasion the situation did indeed come close to collapse. But when the US and its allies including Britain changed tactics in 2007 under General David Petraeus – the “surge” of troops – things started to improve.
By 2011, while other Arab states were in turmoil, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government was managing relations with the minority Sunnis in the west well enough.
Since then Nouri Al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has behaved as if he were intent on destroying any possible accord between his own Shiite Muslims and the Sunnis.
All of them are just a Eurostar journey away from LondonAs a fellow Shiite, Al Maliki has been warm to Iran, by far the biggest power in the area. Iran’s strategic interest has been to reduce Iraq’s national cohesion. Typically Iran’s tactics are to arm and train terrorist groups and then when they have done their worst to step in as a supposed mediating force in conflicts it has itself exacerbated.
When US forces left Iraq in 2011 this opened the door to Iran. It also opened the door to a more openly terrorist group Al Qaeda, whose operations in Iraq grew steadily after 2011.
But that is all in a sense background. Because what has really plunged Iraq into a spiral of collapse has been Syria.
As the Syrian war has ploughed on, getting dirtier and ever more attritional, so its impact across the region has deepened. The opposition to President Assad was initially mainly free of extremists. But as Assad dug in and the war became a battle to the death, jihadist terrorists came to dominate the opposition forces.
They had money and arms supplied by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Critically they also had volunteers flooding in from across the planet with the drive and passion of the radicalised Islamist that is now so familiar.
Syria became not only a cause in itself for these fighters but also a training ground for them to learn their craft: terrorism. And in the battle between extremists the most extreme and ruthless is always likely to win. Which leaves us with Isis, now the biggest and most dangerous terrorist group in the region.
All of which may be so but why does this matter to us?
In September 1938 prime minister Neville Chamberlain spoke about the German invasion of Czechoslovakia as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”. Far away it might have been but within a year of those remarks we were at war. You might well be thinking the same about what has been going on in Iraq, a faraway country. So let me tell you about a terrorist attack in Brussels last month.
On May 24 a gunman opened fire at the Jewish Museum, killing four people. A week later the French police arrested Mehdi Nemmouche in connection with the murders. Nemmouche is believed to have returned to Europe after fighting in Syria with Isis.
And that is why what is going on in Iraq matters to us. What happened in Brussels last month could happen here or anywhere else in Europe at any time. In Belgium alone there are hundreds if not thousands of radicalised Muslims who have fought in Syria.
As one British intelligence chief put it after the shootings: “All of them are just a Eurostar journey away from London.”
And they hate us as much as they hate Assad and the Iraqi government. They hate everyone who is not Isis. Worse, Isis is growing by the day and the security forces say there is a constant influx of radicalised British Muslims. It is a vicious circle: the more successful Isis is in Iraq, the more attractive it becomes to those who see fighting jihad for an Islamic state as their ultimate goal in life. The more recruits it pulls in the stronger it gets.
And when those recruits leave Syria and Iraq they come home. To Britain. So tempted as you may be to dismiss what is going on in Iraq and Syria as a quarrel in a faraway country, its implications are directly – frighteningly – relevant to us.
That is the real worry.