A few months ago, I wrote of the potential challenges of a joint thrust by the Iraqi Military and supporting elements against Mosul, following on successes in January and February in halting the ISIS blitzkrieg on the north-south axis and in clearing portions of Diyala and eliminating threats to Erbil. I will admit the events of the past week may have just thrown many observers for a loop, including me. Late as last week, I was reading that ISIS was on the backfoot, its leader wounded, its Syrian and Iraqi theater commanders fighting among themselves, and it seemed that the expected push northwards, which included clearing Tikrit on the northern approach to Baghdad, to Nineveh province and Mosul would follow.
Now instead, a vicious counterattack in the West of Iraq, in Anbar province, has overrun the major city of Ramadi and threatened to cut off Iraqi forces defending and clearing Haditha and al Assad airbase, where US forces are currently operating. Videos showed the 8th Brigade’s Anbar Operational Command in speedy retreat. Ramadi was the initial scene of the Anbar Awakening, in which Sunni tribes disaffected with al Qaeda in Iraq (one of ISIS’ forerunners) were aided and abetted by the Americans to form self defense forces to drive out al Qaeda and affiliated insurgent groups. ISIS has, according to reports, been taking revenge, looking for collaborators and anti-ISIS communal leaders who asked for American and Shiite militia’s assistance.
ISIS has, in the face of its local and global opponents, pursued peripheral consolidation strategies. Though pressed in the north and rebuffed by fierce Kurdish resistance in Syria, ISIS has been able to make use of sporadic attacks outside of the main line of operations to destabilize its already unstable opponents, hitting them most anywhere they can while exposing their main avenues to as little risk as possible. It’s very easy to spread chaos with weaponized individuals and a good narrative and messaging strategy via social media; ISIS’ boogeyman has been everywhere, from Afghanistan to Texas, and no one can tell what exactly is going on. Are there the required networks, sleeper cells, and infrastructure which constitute already-embedded threats which could explode, or are these just tactical strikes to unnerve their opponents and win greater propaganda victories? With the semi-detached bayat system, which is an informal but relatively headless management style in which groups or individuals anywhere can pledge loyalty to al Baghdadi as Caliph, ISIS’ word of mouth presence seems to show them on the march everywhere, and such a system is great for exporting disruptive violence and garnering legitimacy to trade for cash, guns, and lives for the main ISIS effort to consolidate territory in al Sham.
Locally as well, ISIS has been not-so-quietly mopping up in Anbar. In November 2014, ISIS retreated from Western Ramadi in order to consolidate areas around the city of Hit and then, in a lightning campaign, countering an Iraqi Army thrust at Fallujah, which it had held since January. Led by the Chechen Abu Umar al Shishani, the counterattack was successful at throwing the Iraqi Security Forces off balance in Anbar. ISIS then continued spoiling attacks and expanded its supply lines up the Tigris River into eastern Syria, building on the void left by the withdrawal of Syrian Regime forces to counter renewed Rebel pressure in western Syria to consolidate. Though halted on the southern avenue from Mosul to Baghdad, ISIS has been able to do exactly what was feared from a too-passive strategy: outlast its coalition of opponents as they hinder each other’s efforts to destroy it, and then proving resilient and adaptive in the face of uncoordinated attacks upon it.
Wars are a nasty, long, and political business; the forces facing ISIS are sectarian and multilateral, and thus are chafing the longer they have to stand next to each other. The major external actors, the United States and Australasian/European Partners (busily trying to do the most damage with commitment), the Arab League (busy battling Houthis in Yemen), and Iran (busily supporting the Syrian Regime, Hezbollah, and the Shi’a militias which constitute the Popular Mobilization front) all are staring down the barrels at each other over Yemen while simultaneously trying to deescalate the nuclear ladder. Outreach and common interests are no doubt being discussed, but covert action can only yield so many results when open avenues to structure power arrangements do not exist and regional power competition remains poised to rupture any arrangements.
Within the country, the Popular Mobilization of Shi’a militias and the United States airstrikes have not been able to work concurrently, while the Abadi government, still in rough seas, refuses to conscious an American plan to directly arm the Kurds and Sunni groups. After all, much of the germination of Anbar’s fall had to do with Sunni tribal forces and communities who fear the power of Shi’a factionalism as well as Salafist extremism. An Army of fanatical Shi’a who openly answer to Muqtada al Sadr, the Sh’ia cleric whose political faction holds great sway in Iraq’s parliament, may seem to many Anbaris like a pill for a disease, but one that is just as likely to be fatal. The movement of Popular Mobilization units to Anbar was so controversial (and sparked a few bad incidents) that the units withdrew, theoretically as a gesture of goodwill. The sectarianism and supposed unreliability of these forces, as they failed to fully clear Tikrit in March, led the United States to continue to press against them by denying supporting air cover. American interests are now under stress as maintaining a national state-based monopoly on military power, one that is not so explicitly threaded with paramilitary members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, is looking increasingly unfeasible.
At the same time, withdrawing air support to militia units, and the news that Congress was considering treating the Kurds and anti-ISIS Sunnis as nations so as to bypass Baghdad’s prerogative and sole authority to arm sectarian forces, caused the Shi’a, who are the majority in Baghdad’s national government, to refuse to support joint operations. Meanwhile, Kurdish and Sunni forces complained that Baghdad was not forwarding them the weapons or supplies needed to keep ISIS at bay. In Anbar, pleas have even gone out to the Popular Mobilization from Sunni elements directly, who fear they are in-between the devil and the deep blue sea. As the ISIS tide has risen again, such Baghdad-aligned Sunni forces may form a role similar to their tribal counterparts in eastern Syria who fight ISIS with the backing of the Shi’a dominated Assad Regime, but Baghdad is, understandably, wary of creating yet another extra-judicial fighting force it cannot control. In Anbar, tensions are still holding over from 2003-2004, when insurgent Sadaam-supporting Ba’athists (many of whom are now in ISIS) first emerged and partnered with al Qaeda, and mutual distrust undermines the competence of the forces opposing ISIS. Without the militias to extend their reach, or at least hold territory to contest ISIS’ movements, the Iraqi Army has been very quickly surrounded and forced to withdraw to a few strong points.
ISIS has managed to exploit the aforementioned frictions by letting the course of international events drive the external powers to crisis while it wages an effective propaganda war by claiming command and control (though to what extent, it is unclear) over acts of terrorist violence internationally, which further destabilizes the coalition of the unwilling. In Iraq itself, it continues to, by its very existence and ability to spread chaos, present a hard target which splits its enemies as much as it unites them. Proxy tensions between Iran and the United States too has a toll on unified efforts; many Shi’a believe the United States lets ISIS continue to grow to attack Iran, a message encouraged by popular media, while Sunnis are unsure that Kurdish and Shi’a forces are not just fronts for Iranian Qods Force operatives to continue to support Hezbollah and the Syrian Regime by implanting fresh logistics and ethnic corridors through their areas.
So the question becomes thus: What is now to be done? Ramadi, a city cleared and held repeatedly throughout the Iraq War at great cost to American and Iraqi life, is now in the hands of ISIS. It is only 70 miles away from Baghdad, and the fear of ISIS penetration into the surrounding communities in the belts (a major site of bombmaking activities and insurgent infrastructure from 2003-2007) may compel a shift in American strategy, but to what? In Congress, the debate fluctuates over the arming provisions in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act passed in the House of Representatives which bypass Baghdad, but also about whether it will then be time to deploy American ground troops for combat operations. Few are enthused with the latter idea. Yet, even as they talk of countering Sectarianism by refusing to support Iranian-backed militias, some in Congress are insisting the United States needs to arm Kurdish and Sunni ones (see the Militia Conundrum).
Meanwhile, the DOD has made one of the world’s poorest-timed assertions that things are improving, even as Ramadi has fallen. In this case, ISIS’s military council is simply compensating by going on the offense, which some view as the best defense. Tactically it is unclear if the sudden ISIS thrust could just as soon by parried and returned by renewed assaults, but doing so will require the militia’s assistance. There has been tacit admission that giving air and fires support to the Popular Mobilization militias is now strategically palatable, as long as it is to the Administration’s satisfaction that they are controlled by the government of Iraq.
The Institute for the Study of War has recommended that it is time for external intervention against ISIS, but gloomily noted that it couldn’t think of a regional power that could do so without alienating at least one major ethnic or religious group in country, or coming in with a list of strings attached, especially due to the tensions over Yemen. In reality, what is likely needed now is an open agreement for ground-forces intervention among Iran, the United States, Turkey, Arab powers, etc, but that is extremely unlikely because the hands of the country’s leaders to negotiate are tied by domestic resistance, especially in the United States and in Iran. Points of agreement to preserve the status quo are possible, and arguably it must be presented that way to succeed, but there are many adjudicating factors about what agreements can be accepted, and, crucially, whose forces will go where and occupy what. Likewise, a hard and fast system for withdrawal of forces will be politically vital, though realistically untenable, for such a multilateral intervention to succeed.
All this, unfortunately, gives ISIS time to consolidate along the Tigris, forming two potential cordons for attack on Baghdad from north and south (dividing Baghdad’s defensive resources between them). With the Assad Regime falling back in Syria and the Syrian Opposition pushing towards Damascus, ISIS’s Syrian holdings and Iraqi rear area may grow more secure. While this also forces ISIS into the position of having to control and possible reinforce multiple fronts as the Syrian Kurds and rival Islamists still remain a threat (“He who defends everything defends nothing” as Frederick the Great observed), consolidating Anbar, a majority Sunni region, would give ISIS a strong position which it could use to bleed Iraqi Security Forces and Shi’a militias, whose control and tendency to commit extra-judicial killings will further alienate ISIS’ Sunni populations and add to their propaganda arsenal.
Yet, given their still relatively modest capabilities and failure to demonstrate superior competency in combined arms manuever, the Iraqi Security Forces need to be able to hold ground and then counterattack to relieve surrounded positions if they are cut off. Certainly American airstrikes can help and interdict ISIS attacks, but the critical mass, historically at least, needs to be provided by infantry, likely provided by militias, and especially where bombing is not feasible due to civilian casualties. It would be good if those were local Sunni militias, but that option again reinforces Baghdad’s fears about building sectarian forces outside its control, while the Popular Mobilization is at hand and seemingly willing to back up Baghdad.
What is worse is that the more time is lost to ironing this out strategically, tactically things could get very hairy indeed. ISIS has proven in Ramadi that it is perfectly capable of making tactical withdrawals, hitting the enemies’ center of gravity sporadically, and then counterattacking viciously, a resilient enemy if ever there was one. Clearing them out of Anbar will be a task of attrition (read: many will die) and a struggle over time. Familiarity is said to breed contempt, and the long process of occupying and pacifying Anbar could come with its own challenges to Iraqi Security Forces in restraining troops, guarding against further suicide attacks, and winning hearts and minds (something they have not succeeded in in the past). American support and target-attack sorties, an expensive way of fighting without further commitment, will likely continue in order to do something to keep Iraq alive and not totally engaged to Iran. Hitting ISIS can occasionally turn great results and keeps the scale of attacks to theoretically manageable levels, but the ease with which sporadic airpower can be countered (including with sandstorms) proffers that this strategy will yield little quickly and may be declining into inefficacy, save for “we’re doing something” propaganda value (which, in this political climate, is not working for the Obama Administration).
Meanwhile, fighting still continues on the northern approaches to Baghdad, and ISIS also now controls a significant portion of the strategic Baiji Oil Refinery. The disposition of Iraqi Forces along the northern and western fronts will need to counter any further push, but also keep ISIS off balance by itself making effective offensives. While theoretically in a strong defensive position vis a vis Baghdad, ISIS’ maneuverable tactical advantage in infiltration and suicide attacks can easily weaken the interior lines the Iraqi Security Forces enjoy, and the performance of troops at Ramadi, like at Mosul last year, provides little additional confidence. While Shi’a militias are currently massing northeast of Fallujah to counterattack, it remains to be seen if these forces can effectively counter ISIS without pushing the remaining 40% of Anbar outside ISIS control into Daesh grasp.