Baghdad ponders Russia option
WASHINGTON - When the Islamic State (ISIS) took over the western Iraqi city of Ramadi on May 17th, there was a sense of urgency in Washington and Baghdad to hit back with an offensive. This uplifting momentum through the summer began to fade in the fall, as a stalemate settled on the outskirts of Ramadi and the northern ISIS-held city of Mosul.
Priorities in Iraq have shifted and Russian air strikes on Syria have exposed the subtle US-Iraqi cooperation to defeat the Islamic group.
“We have always been very clear that this is an Iraqi-led operation and that the timetable for any offensive will be set by them,” US Defense Department spokeswoman Commander Elissa Smith said in August. “We are focused on getting the Iraqi forces adequately trained and equipped and the plan synchronised. Efforts to train and advise Iraqi forces are ongoing at multiple sites across Iraq, with cooperation from our coalition partners.”
The Obama administration scrambled in May 2014 to accelerate the pace of weapons transfer and training of Iraqi tribes to set the stage for an Iraqi-led offensive to recapture Ramadi, a 90-minute drive from Baghdad. Mosul has been systematically isolated by Iraqi forces and ISIS is showing signs of vulnerability there.
According to the Pentagon, the slow, methodical approach of the Iraqi forces’ advance aims to limit property destruction and civilian casualties. However, other than Kurdish groups’ success against ISIS around Kirkuk, there has been a stalemate on the battlefield. Analysts are divided as to why.
James Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, said the United States “will have to employ far more air power far more effectively with looser rules of engagement and at least a few thousand US troops on the ground to do air spotting, advising, raiding and, frankly, some US combat contingents to stiffen [the Iraqis’] spine to get an offensive going”.
“Priority should be retake Ramadi and isolate Falluja,” he added.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, had another take and noted that the limits of the Iraqi troops are “a great concern because there is only so much that air power can do in this kind of campaign”.
“There is also the fact that half the army melted away in recent years due to politics and nepotism and also the fact that ISIS is fairly formidable,” he said.
Compared to one year ago, mobilisation calls by Iraqi leaders have succeeded in shielding Shia areas from a potential ISIS offensive. This sense of security allowed protesters in Baghdad to shift the focus in Iraq on July 31st by taking to the streets to demand better public services, which emboldened Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to announce an ambitious reform package. Ongoing political pressure on Abadi cast doubts on his ability to follow through.
Jeffrey said Abadi can still implement reforms and maintain the unity of the country if the Shia coalition “listens to him”, referring to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the protesters who called for reforms, “not the allies of Iran”. But “the jury is still out” on whether Abadi will manage to succeed on the political front or at least “clear away some of the underbrush and excessive government [corruption] at mid-level positions”, O’Hanlon said.
A new dimension to the Iraqi scene is the Russian air strikes on neighbouring Syria, which prompted calls by Iraqi leaders, in particular Sistani and Abadi, for Moscow to expand its target list to include ISIS in Iraq.
A senior US administration official downplayed any strategic implications of an alliance between Moscow and Baghdad, stating that the Russians “have little to give the Iraqis since they have few assets in Iraq”.
Smith noted that Russia “has announced publicly that its air operations in Syria will not be extended to Iraq”.
“We have consistently said that we welcome a Russian role in fighting ISIS. However, we are concerned by reports that Russian strikes in Syria targeted moderate opposition groups, rather than ISIS and we have made those concerns clear to the Russians,” she said.
However, Jeffrey pointed out that any Russian action in Iraq “would be totally objectionable to any US administration interested in preserving stability and the US security role in the region”.
“Tragically there is real doubt whether President [Barack] Obama sees things that way. He has surprised us frequently since the 2013 Syria’s red line disaster with positions that seemingly fly in the face of US interests,” he added.
O’Hanlon said that if Russian air strikes are “de-conflicted” from US air strikes in Iraq and are “truly in service” of the Iraqi government’s offensive plan, “they would be among the least of our problems”.