Iraq: ISIS sits tight as its foes slug it out
LONDON - The Pentagon in Washington was cautiously suggesting in April that the Islamic State (ISIS) was on the run in Iraq, having ceded more than a quarter of the territory it seized a year ago.
“The combination of coalition air power and Iraqi ground forces are having an effect on the enemy’s ability to hold territory and have freedom of movement,” US Army Colonel Steve Warren, a US Defense Department spokesman, said.
The optimistic assessment followed the liberation of Tikrit by a combination of Iraqi government forces, Iranian-backed Shia militia and Sunni tribal fighters, supported by US-led coalition air strikes.
Within weeks, however, ISIS eclipsed its setback in Tikrit by seizing Ramadi, the capital of Anbar governorate and a city which straddles the highway to Baghdad. In Syria, it captured Palmyra and seized another strategic border crossing connecting its territories in neighbouring countries.
Baghdad announced a counteroffensive, backed by paramilitary units, to push the jihadists out of Anbar. But the shock of recent gains by ISIS already had the effect of exposing the divisions among the forces opposing it.
What went wrong? There was no shortage of answers as various players involved in the fight against ISIS rushed to blame each other for the debacle. For US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, the culprits were the Iraqi military whom he claimed showed a lack of willingness to fight when they fled from a vastly smaller ISIS force.
Not so, countered Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose spokesman told the media: “Carter was probably given incorrect information because the situation on the ground is different. We should not judge the whole army based on one incident.”
Throwing the blame back on the Americans, Hakim al-Zamili, head of the Iraqi parliament’s defence committee, said, “The Iraqi army and police did have the will to fight ISIS in Ramadi but these forces lack good equipment, weapons and aerial support.”
Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the increasingly high-profile Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander who heads his country’s operations in Iraq, took the opportunity to accuse US President Barack Obama of not having done “a damn thing so far” to confront ISIS.
That came close to echoing Obama’s domestic critics, including US Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., who blamed the president for paving the way for the ISIS takeover by withdrawing US forces from Iraq in 2011.
The blame game is an understandable consequence of the fact that the forces ranged against ISIS have different and, at times conflicting, aims but it also amounts to a gift to ISIS propagandists.
The failure of the strategy to roll back the jihadists reflects the fact that there is no discernible common strategy, at least not one that is shared by all the participants from the White House to Tehran via Baghdad. And there is even less clarity when the interests of other players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia are added to the mix.
“Coordination is relatively limited and ineffectual and coordination between Iran and the US is minimal,” said Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“The US role is not insignificant but it’s the minimum necessary,” he told The Arab Weekly. “The US is not prepared to put people in but what can it do remotely that it couldn’t do with 150,000 troops on the ground?”
The Iraqi response, meanwhile, was hamstrung by deep divisions that went beyond the immediate ISIS threat, he said.
ISIS has made major territorial inroads against ostensibly superior forces with a strategy described by the US-based Soufan Group security consultancy as “infiltrate; intimidate; assassinate; attack.” It’s a strategy that involves suicide truck bombings to bulldoze ISIS assaults and large-scale booby-trapping of any areas from which it’s forced to retreat.
The often ill-coordinated anti- ISIS response has been both piecemeal and inadequate. While Washington alleges a lack of fighting spirit on the part of Iraqi troops, Baghdad complains of shortages of US weapons supplies and insufficient air support.
“Most Iraqi military units appear to be poorly supplied and are running out of ammunition quickly without timely support,” Riad Kahwaji of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis told The Arab Weekly.
A US decision to deliver 2,000 AT-4 anti-tank rockets to Iraq to help Baghdad combat suicide bombings came too late to save Ramadi. Russia, which is at odds with Washington on a range of international issues, also leapt in and told a visiting Abadi they would do all they could to help Baghdad combat ISIS.
Russian media have also been busy with allegations that the United States is soft-pedalling in the fight against ISIS and prominently interpreting recently published US intelligence to suggest Washington was behind the group’s creation.
With enemies like these, ISIS may for the time being outlast earlier predictions of its steady demise.