One Clausewitz’s most perceptive remarks in his classic book On War was that it takes two sides to make the war. If one side simply surrenders, there will be no war. He might have said much the same about battles. It takes two sides to make a battle, and if one side runs away there will be no battle. In such a situation, the side which does not run away will win, irrespective of how militarily competent it is. This pattern is actually very common in modern warfare: we have seen it recently in Mali and in the DRC. But more generally, it is typical of wars fought between small groups with low levels of technology and often poor leadership.
Which brings us naturally enough to Iraq, and to the recent victory of the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) in taking Mosul, the second city of Iraq. The fact that the city was taken at all seems to be a result of three Divisions of the expensively trained and equipped Iraqi Army simply deciding not to fight, and going home. This is not entirely surprising, given that morale and leadership are known to be poor, and, more importantly, that Sunni soldiers were extremely unlikely to fire on fellow Sunnis. In turn, this situation is largely the product of discrimination on the part of the new Shia-led government, which can only have come as a surprise to very ignorant people indeed, mostly in Washington. The strength of ISIS has been provisionally estimated at anything between seven and ten thousand fighters, of whom many seem to be foreigners including some from Syria itself. ISIS, which began as an off-shoot of Al Qaeda, seems to be adopting somewhat different and more conventional tactics from its guerilla-warfare style parent organisation. In particular, it seems to be using the classic technique of getting targeting those who work for the government, and especially the security forces for killing. It must be very likely, in addition, that former Sunni officers are involved in command and control of the force. However, for the moment, it’s fighting capability is unknown, and it seems very unlikely that it could take Baghdad even if it wanted to.
With financial support to Sunni fighting groups in the region coming from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and with Iran taking on the defence of Baghdad and the Shia community in the region, it’s reasonable to ask where the West is in all of this. The answer appears to be “nowhere”. For the first time in over a century, it is possible that the map of the Middle East will be re-drawn without the intervention of outside states. Other than throwing its toys out of the pram, and gritting its teeth and making friends with Iran, there is not actually much the West can do. The issue is not western intervention any more, but how long it takes the West to realise that the nature of the game has changed.