The Iraqi Offensive Against ISIS – Ramifications and Possibilities
Last Week the Monitor Analysis looked at the announced offensive against Mosul and the difficulties in achieving success. One of the problems we mentioned was that several cities needed to be captured in order to establish the supply line from Baghdad to Mosul that would be necessary to carry out the offensive.
This week, it was announced that the offensive would be put off. Instead, Iraqi security forces launched an attack against Tikrit, the first city that needs to be secured in order to build a supply line to Mosul.
This is the largest assault carried out by the Iraqi forces to force ISIS forces back and recapture territory. Experts estimate about 30,000 troops are being used in the offensive. The forces consist of Iraqi security forces, Shiite militias who are perceived to be directly supported by Tehran and Sunni militias who abhor ISIS excesses.
This week, three Emergency Battalions from the Iraqi police and three “special tasks” companies moved from Diyala toward Salah ad-Din to support the operation there. A local Sunni leader stated that Iraqi forces arrived on the outskirts of Alam, east of Tikrit, and that ISIS evacuated its casualties from the hospital in the area because they expected shelling.
The attack against Tikrit was multi-pronged from the south, north, west, and east. Security forces supported by the “Popular Mobilization” reportedly entered Qadisiyah neighborhood, north of Tikrit, killing and wounding dozens of ISIS members and taking control of some areas in the neighborhood. Clashes also killed eight members of the Popular Mobilization and injured 42 others.
Elsewhere, Iraqi security forces and the Popular Mobilization forces reportedly cleared a college campus located 2 km south of Tikrit. The source added that the forces will advance to clear the local government building in the city. On March 1, the Iraqi Air Force targeted ISIS positions in central Tikrit. On March 2, the combined forces reportedly made several advances. An anonymous security source stated that military reinforcements from the Iraqi Special Operations Forces and the Popular Mobilization had arrived at Camp Speicher, west of Tikrit, and that forces positioned north and west of Tikrit are tasked with clearing the city itself and are “awaiting orders” to do so. A tribal leader from Salah ad-Din, Wanas Jbara, stated that 4,500 local fighters from the province are participating in the operation.
Although the attack is the first step on the road to Mosul, it also helps protect Samara from the ISIS threat. The Iraqi military has moved forces there as part of this operation in order to protect the Imam Askari Shrine, which had been targeted by ISIS artillery.
The Iran Factor
What has been notable is the lack of coalition support for this offensive. According to Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren, this is partial due to extensive Iranian participation in the offensive.
This raises serious questions about the offensive and what it will accomplish. Obviously a win by the Iraqi forces would be a defeat for ISIS. However, who would be the winner?
There is considerable concern that Iraq will not be the only winner. Recently pictures surfaced in Iranian news outlets showing Qassem Sulaimani, the commander of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force, in what was portrayed to be areas near Tikrit. This is not the first time Sulaimani has appeared during major operations, and his role as an “adviser” to the Iranian-backed militias has been publicized and confirmed by senior militia leaders.
It is unclear if the absence of the coalition airstrikes is at the request of the militias or because of a desire by the U.S.-led coalition to refrain from working with such militias. The presence of an Iranian general, other Iranian advisors and Shiite militias on the ground alongside Iraqi Sunni fighters to retake a major Sunni provincial capital led some regional quarters to raise concerns that Iran is attempting to carve a sphere of influence in Iraq.
The size and influence of the Iranian forces is considerable. There are reports that hundreds of thousands of Shiite young men have volunteered for Iranian supported militias fighting in Iraq. One militia commander estimated that the pro-Iranian militias contain about 800.000 men – a strength larger than the Iraqi forces. In fact, US sources say that 2/3 of the force could be Shiite militias.
This shows the fragile nature of the present U.S. led coalition. According to some American analysts, allied nations like the US, Jordan, and GCC nations are reticent to help enlarge a Shiite presence in Iraq. The Kurds will grow uneasy if Iran and the Shiites stretch their influence too far north. And, even some in the Iraqi government will grow uneasy about increased Iranian influence as the ISIS threat recedes.
These political pressures will only grow as the offensive succeeds and moves further north to Mosul.
The biggest threat to a continued offensive against Mosul is Shiite-Sunni friction in the area between Tikrit and Mosul. If pro-Iranian, Shiite militias occupy Sunni areas with a heavy hand, either ISIS or other Sunni militias could disrupt the supply line and force the military leaders to strip the spearhead of manpower to patrol the highway leading to Mosul and protect convoys.
A punitive attitude towards Sunni tribes on the road to Mosul will also mean greater resistance to the Iraqi offensive as local tribes may decide to support ISIS rather than assist or join Iraqi forces .
As the offensive nears Mosul, it enters territory that has been claimed from time to time by the Kurds. This makes the Kurds a major player in the final disposition of Mosul. Ideally, Iraq would prefer the Kurds side with them in order to capture Mosul. However, that may mean making concessions to the Kurds that neither Baghdad nor Tehran are willing to make.
In that case, the Kurds may be quite willing to stand aside and let ISIS and the Iraqi/Iranian forces weaken each other in a house–to-house battle for the city. That would leave the Kurds in a position to retake some territory, knowing that anyone opposing them is greatly weakened, probably facing unrest in their rear, and looking at an unsecured supply line.
Although reports indicate that the Iraqi forces are making progress, it is still a long way to Mosul. Final victory depends equally on non military successes along the way rather than merely tactical victories on the ground.
The Iranian Sea-Air-Missile Threat to Gulf Shipping
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 27, 2015
The Arabian Gulf is now involved in a massive arms race, triggered largely by the fear that Iran will try to use its military forces to intimidate or dominate its neighbors. Iran has threatened to close the Gulf and carried out a wide range of large military exercises to show its capabilities. And Iran has steadily increased its ability to exploit the threat of conventional and asymmetric warfare to maritime traffic in the Gulf. The buildup of Iran’s naval, air, and missile capabilities poses a wide range of threats to maritime traffic into and outside of the Gulf. One potential target of this threat is the steady increase in bulk cargo shipments into the Gulf, Arabia Sea/Gulf of Oman, and Red Seas—shipments that are of steadily growing strategic importance to each of the other the Gulf states.
Seeking Harbors in the Storm
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 27, 2015
Alterman provides a strategic overview of where the region is coming from, where it is today, and how it might change in the years ahead. This volume comes at a time of profound uncertainty about the future of political life in the Middle East. Where some see an interregnum in efforts by younger and more connected populations to push for inclusion, others see a region coming to its senses after a moment of irrational exuberance. Some see a state system that is increasingly weary, while others see a state system fortified by the knowledge that its demise would bring chaos. The events of the last five years suggest that regional politics are interconnected, but the manner of their interconnections is a source of constant surprise. While it is impossible to predict their direction, the last five years have helped us understand some of the key variables, and what to notice.
Down to the Wire With Iran
By George Perkovich
March 4, 2015
The deadline for finalizing the outline of a nuclear deal with Iran is fast approaching. As negotiators work to close the remaining gaps, critics of the agreement are voicing their complaints, including a high-profile speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress on March 3, 2015. In a Q&A, George Perkovich analyzes what is known about the negotiations and the components of a deal so far. Perkovich says it’s easy to forget just how remarkable these talks are and that there is no better alternative to the current approach.
How to Retake Mosul from the Islamic State
By Michael Knights and Michael Pregent
February 27, 2015
On Feb. 19, a senior official with U.S. Central Command leaked details about the most widely anticipated military offensive in the Arab world — the battle to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the grip of the Islamic State. The official said that combat operations could begin in March or April and would involve as many as 25,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops. The debate that followed this announcement has mainly focused on the wisdom or logic of airing battle plans and to some extent on the feasibility of the timeline. But arguably the most important question is: How should Mosul be liberated to ensure its long-term stability? After all, if Mosul is cleared of jihadis, only to fall to the Islamic State again some months later, what’s the point? What if Mosul collapses into factional warlordism akin to civil war-era Beirut or today’s embattled Libyan capital, Tripoli?”
Iran’s Provocative Naval Exercise: Motives and Implications
By Farzin Nadimi
March 3, 2015
On February 25, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched its long-overdue “Great Prophet 9” naval exercise in the Strait of Hormuz by attacking a mockup of an American aircraft carrier off Larak Island. The spectacular display of firepower took place in a waterway that plays a strategic as well as psychological role in world politics and energy markets, and the Iranians have made no secret of their desire to be recognized as the dominant military power in the area and guarantor of the world’s energy security. Indeed, being the “policeman of the Persian Gulf” is not a new aspiration — Iran has been associated with that phrase since the 1970s. Increasingly, however, Tehran has shown a willingness to combine real military capabilities and highly publicized drills with coercive rhetorical threats. Such rhetoric generally seems designed to boost Iran’s deterrence posture and reinforce its stature in the region. But the nature and timing of the latest exercise reveals much more about the Islamic Republic’s specific motivations, which are likely rooted in economic concerns, posturing over the nuclear negotiations, and internal political and military fissures.
Dealing with a Bad Iranian Nuclear Agreement
By James F. Jeffrey
March 2, 2015
The Obama administration and the rest of the P5+1 will likely agree soon on a limited-duration agreement with Iran that aims to provide around one year of warning time before any breakout to nuclear weapons capability — a deal that Israel and many other regional states would view as a victory for the Islamic Republic and an eventual danger to all. In that case, the administration would likely face a multifaceted crisis with Israel and other allies, with Congress, and with an Iran whose intentions remain opaque. Despite the inevitable rhetorical fireworks on all sides, however, the situation is too serious for partisanship — it requires serious thought about what to do and not do. Two components require particular attention: the consequences of a nuclear agreement whose details have been sufficiently leaked to provide considerable clarity, and the consequences of possible White House and Iranian interest in a better bilateral relationship, which the administration may see as a potential stabilizer for the region even if no one else does.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor