Anti-ISIS push in Iraq still a stalemate
LONDON - It has been just more than a year since fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS) swept out of their Syrian strongholds and seized large areas of neighbouring Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second largest city.
Some 6,000 coalition air strikes later, one of the more positive assessments of the struggle to defeat the jihadists and their self-declared state is that it has reached a stalemate.
That was the view of Robert Neller, a veteran US Marine Corps lieutenant-general, when he appeared before a US Senate committee in July to be confirmed as the corps’ new commander.
Pressed by a characteristically testy Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., to say whether ISIS was losing the war, Neller said it was not: “I don’t believe they’re winning either. I believe they’re at a stalemate.”
McCain, a hardliner on the issue, took a more pessimistic view of the outlook, both in the air and on the ground, where he argued that Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq were the only ones fighting the insurgents.
The senator is among critics who say the Obama administration is not doing enough to combat the ISIS threat. He demands a more robust response, including the deployment of US forward air controllers to boost the effectiveness of coalition air strikes.
However, with governments and public opinion in the United States and other Western allies firmly opposed to a “boots on the ground” strategy, the assumption is that a regenerated Iraqi Army will inevitably have to take the lead.
That, at least, was the mainstream US view as put forward by Neller at the Senate hearing, although McCain retorted: “General, they can’t do it themselves, we know that, the Iraqis cannot do it. That’s why they’re losing.”
McCain might be criticised for overlooking progress made in rehabilitating an Iraqi military that fled in the face of an assault by a much smaller ISIS force in 2014. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, successor to the divisive Nuri al- Maliki, has reshuffled the military command and appealed for more weapons and training to counter the ISIS threat.
And, although Abadi has rejected the option of Western soldiers joining the fight, he says more can be offered in terms of intelligence and air surveillance.
Whatever progress he and his generals might claim about the Iraqi Army’s combat readiness, this has yet to significantly translate itself onto the battlefield in a decisive way. In 2014, there was talk of a counter-attack to reconquer Mosul but was rapidly abandoned. Since then ISIS has seized Ramadi, 120 kilometres west of Baghdad, and other strongpoints in Anbar province.
Now coalition strategists want the Iraqis to take on ISIS in Ramadi. Iraqi forces recently surrounded the city and are preparing a final assault. “It’s a slow, methodical, deliberate advance,” said US Navy Commander Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Ramadi is not Mosul but a victory there would allow Iraq and its coalition partners to assert that the perceived stalemate has been broken.
Meanwhile, ISIS has been pushed back along its 1,000-kilometre frontier with Iraq’s Kurdish region, while it has been on the defensive against Kurdish forces in neighbouring Syria after being pushed out of the Turkish border town of Kobane.
Elsewhere, however, the fluctuating frontlines, with ISIS popping up on new fronts even as they are pushed back on old ones, appear to bear out Neller’s assessment of a stalemate.
The problem is partly military, partly political. On the ground, the ISIS tactic of using suicide attackers in armoured vehicles to blast through its enemies’ lines has provoked shock and awe among defenders who are often too badly equipped to resist.
ISIS deaths, estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000, appear to have contributed little to dent the movement’s capabilities. They have been replaced by new foreign recruits arriving across Turkey’s porous borders and Western intelligence agencies say ISIS maintains the same strength — 20,000-30,000 people — it had a year ago.
The prospect of securing those borders was at least one element that led the United States and other NATO allies to welcome Turkey’s entry into the anti-ISIS war.
But that intervention itself raises the problem of the other essential ingredient of the fightback — politics. Turkey’s decision to simultaneously strike its old domestic enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), provoked a backlash from the very Kurdish forces that have actually scored significant victories against ISIS. It was just another example of how the self-interest of players ranged against ISIS has trumped the need for a unified response. These divisions are reflected on the ground, with splits among those who look to the United States or Iran, or perhaps to the Gulf states, as international sponsors.
In the absence of a more focused and coordinated campaign in the coming year, the status of the battle against ISIS in 12 months could still be “stalemate”.