Tag Archives: IS

Who will fight for Iraq’s survival?

Who will fight for Iraq’s survival?

World powers will meet in Paris next week to consider prospects for ending the war in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

The Iraqis are aware that next week’s Paris conference will not produce the results needed to end the bloody conflict in their country. Nonetheless, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has decided to attend the meeting, clinging to the hope that something good may come out of the high-level discussions.

‌Sceptics fear that the international conference will be another public-relations ploy by the United States and other Western nations to conceal their failure in helping Iraqis rebuild their country more than 12 years after the US-led invasion.

‌Worse, the conference comes amid increasing signs that US President Barack Obama, who ends his term in office in 18 months, is buying time through the talks to adjust his anti-Islamic State (IS) strategy, while planning to dump the Iraqi conflict on the next US president.

‌French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said some of the 60 countries that are part of the US-led coalition fighting against the IS terror group are expected to participate in the conference to take place in Paris on 2 June.

‌A few days after the stunning seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, by IS militants last June, Washington said it was launching a military alliance to help the Iraqis drive the militants from the city and from other terrain captured by IS.

‌Washington said it would work with its partners to contain the IS militants and reverse their gains in Iraq and Syria. In Obama’s words, their strategy was to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the group.

‌Washington’s approach to the campaign has come under fire for being ineffective. The critics’ main complaint is that the Obama administration has no clear vision, suggesting that better strategic planning is needed to defeat IS.

‌Meanwhile, instead of being degraded the group has expanded in both Iraq and Syria. Its capture of the strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi and the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria in recent days has marked the latest in a series of setbacks for the US strategy.

‌Fabius said participants at the Paris meeting will “take stock of how the coalition wants to proceed” in Iraq, but he did not give details. He said that it was “not impossible” that Syria would also be part of the talks.

‌The last such talks were held in Paris in September and saw representatives from around 30 countries and international organisations meet in an attempt to come up with a strategy to combat IS and to determine what the roles of each would be in the US-led coalition.

‌Next week’s gathering comes amid mounting fears that IS militants will use their control of Ramadi and Palmyra to consolidate their gains in both Iraq and Syria and threaten the rest of the region.

‌For many critics, the fall of Ramadi amounts to a strategic defeat for the US-led coalition. It has raised a series of broader questions, not only about the viability of Washington’s approach in Iraq but also about its policies in the Middle East as a whole.

‌The key question now is whether the fall of Ramadi can serve as a wake-up call and if the world powers can handle the Iraqi crisis in a way different from the dozens of regional and international meetings on Iraq that have taken place since the US-led invasion in 2003.

‌It is unclear if the participants at the Paris summit will forge a new path against IS, apart from what is widely seen as the coalition’s ineffective bombing campaign to hit the militants in Iraq and Syria.

‌Washington has conceded that it is taking a “hard look” at its Iraq strategy after the fall of Ramadi, and it has said it will be streamlining the process for delivering weapons to Iraq and increasing the training of Iraqi troops.

‌But despite renewed calls from Republican rivals, such as Arizona Senator John McCain, to deploy US troops to help the Iraqis fight the terrorist group, the Obama administration is not expected to send combat soldiers to Iraq.

‌What Washington and other partners in the coalition are expected to offer in Paris is a renewal of their support for Al-Abadi’s government while restating their policy, which urges a more inclusive government in Iraq and the participation of the Sunnis in policing their areas.

‌What Washington needs to realise is that too much time has passed since it substituted action in Iraq with rhetoric. A close look at events in Iraq since the US troops were withdrawn in 2011 shows it now has fairly limited power in dictating what happens in Iraq.

‌Today, in an Iraq that is not conspicuously stage-managed by the United States, domestic and regional actors, including Iran and the Tehran-backed Shia militias, play pivotal roles. It is even difficult to imagine the magnitude of the forces working against, or at least not in line with, the United States policy in Iraq.

‌This probably puts into perspective remarks made by a senior administration official to Reuters on 18 May to the effect that the United States could support “all elements” of forces aligned against IS, including the Shia militias that are nominally under the Baghdad government’s control.

‌Washington had previously backed off from giving air support to what it considered Iranian-organised and -led operations dominated by Shia militias that answer to Tehran, and so this statement marks a departure from earlier policy.

‌It also underlines Washington’s decision to scrap earlier plans to supply Sunni tribes with weapons directly, without going through Baghdad. The United States has held back the delivery of much-needed weapons to the Iraqi army as an expression of displeasure at Al-Abadi’s hesitation to equip the Sunni tribes.

‌The most impressive sign of a retreat from taking responsibility for the setback in the war against the IS militants is accusations made by US Defence Secretary Ash Carter to the Iraqi armed forces, saying that they show “no will to fight” against the terror group.

‌Moreover, the United States has made little objection to Iranian forces taking an offensive role in operations to drive out IS militants from Beiji in recent days, in conjunction with Iraqi Shia militia.

‌The report of Iran entering the fight to retake this major Iraqi oil refinery, which came from US officials, was the first sign that Washington may have even dropped its opposition to Iranian participation in the war against IS.

‌What all this says about the shape of things to come after the so-called adjustment of US strategy after the spectacular fall of Ramadi is that Obama has no real intention of shifting course and seems determined to leave the war in Iraq to his successor.

‌In a recent briefing by a senior State Department official, the administration sent the clearest message yet to the Iraqis that no drastic change is to be expected in the anti-IS strategy before the end of Obama’s term in January 2017.

‌“I think some of the timeframes that might’ve been announced by various folks over the course of this thing might’ve been a little bit unrealistic. It’s three years: a three-year campaign, three years to degrade,” the official was quoted as saying at the special briefing posted on the State Department’s website.

‌This leaves the question why the Paris summit is being held, and whether or not this will be another pointless endeavour. Though the agenda of the meeting has not been made public, it is widely expected to be an attempt to breathe life into the dormant coalition.

‌Most of the coalition’s 60 members have not done much to fight IS, despite repeated US urging for them to play a more active role. Some of the countries that deployed aircraft at the beginning of the campaign have also since pulled back.

‌Nevertheless, the Obama administration seems to be keen on keeping the outfit working, ostensibly to portray coalition partners as reliable supporters in the crisis.

‌In the meantime, no one knows how the Iraq government will benefit from the high-level conference in Paris. Three previous coalition meetings have ended with many political statements but few tangible commitments.

‌The stunning fall of Ramadi and the Obama administration’s hesitation to come to the aid of the Iraqi forces should have taught the Iraqi government the lesson that it must now work according to its own schedule.

‌If the Iraqis won’t fight for their nation’s survival, no one else will either.

Chaos in Anbar

Chaos in Anbar

The war against Islamic State may be about to take a sharp turn as Baghdad commits Shia militias on the Anbar front, writes Salah Nasrawi

Hours after Islamic State (IS) insurgents seized the Anbar provincial government headquarters in the city of Ramadi and raised the group’s black flag over the compound, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi vowed the country’s security forces and Shia armed factions would drive the militants back “within the next few hours”.

“Like in any war, there might be a retreat here or there, but we are determined to beat Daesh [IS],” Al-Abadi said in a nationwide televised address using the Arabic acronym of the group. “It will suffer a bitter defeat,” he declared.

Taken at face value, Al-Abadi’s pledge to beat the terror group and retake Ramadi sounds like hollow rhetoric. The extent of the retreat of the Iraqi security forces at the hands of IS militants in Ramadi and the opposition to deploying the Shia Popular Mobilisation Force has called into question a fast victory over the brutal insurgents.

But things change in wars, though they remain largely unpredictable. Whether Al-Abadi can fulfil his steadfast commitment will depend on the “shadow of uncertainty”, or what one of the greatest war strategists, Clausewitz, calls the “interactive nature” of war.

In other words, Al-Abadi will need to have a scheme that will not only underlie the conduct of the war with IS, but will also deal with the Iraqi conflict as a whole.

Iraq’s latest round of chaos began early on 15 May when IS fighters made a foray into Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, Iraq’s largest province and the heartland of the Sunni insurgency since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Of course, like the widespread mystery surrounding IS militants since their stunning advances in northern and western Iraq last year, there have been many theories about what happened on that fateful day in Ramadi.

Whether the brutal jihadists made a daring push using armoured bulldozers, explosive-rigged cars and suicide bombings to burst through the defences, or whether it was the result of the security forces’ failure to put up a strong resistance, the assailants had taken over the city centre by the afternoon and hoisted IS’s black flag over the provincial government headquarters.

Exactly what happened remains a mystery. There has been no mention of the proximate reasons behind the fall of the city centre to the jihadists who were known to be preparing to attack Ramadi. Much less is known about the circumstances that led the security forces to withdraw from their posts.

Worse still, the entire strategic city fell to IS jihadists two days after government forces abandoned their positions following a massive blitz by suicide car-bomb attacks. The collapse of the police and the security forces recalled the retreat of the Iraqi military forces last summer when IS captured about a third of the country’s territory.

This week’s fiasco ranks among the most humiliating defeats for Al-Abadi, who vowed after retaking Tikrit from IS last month that recapturing Anbar would be Iraq’s next move. Instead, the fall of Ramadi has allowed IS fighters to close in on the capital Baghdad.

IS’s overall operations in Anbar show an offensive strategy intended to wear down the government security forces to the point of collapse through continuous losses of personnel and material. Part of this approach is to create chaos in Baghdad by sending in more suicide bombers and using a fifth column to undermine the city’s security.

Hours before the onslaught in Ramadi, a series of bombings in Baghdad killed and injured dozens of people, mostly Shia on pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Kadhum north of the city. A mysterious disturbance occurred on 13 May when some pilgrims set fire to a building of the Sunni Endowment after hearing rumours that terrorists wearing explosive belts were attempting to attack them.

By creating a precarious security situation in the capital, IS militants hope to pin down the security forces and the Shia militias in Baghdad and gain more footholds around the capital.

Meanwhile, Ramadi’s fall appears to be a significant blow to the US-backed military coalition to defeat IS. US President Barack Obama has pledged that the aim of the campaign is to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” IS through “a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy”.

Indeed, the clumsy strategy, which has excluded the deployment of US ground forces in the combat against IS, has made the United States a minor player in Iraq. Even as IS jihadists were making important gains in Ramadi, US officials were giving assurances that the war against the terror group was going well.

When the militants seized Ramadi in the deadly three-day blitz, Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith said the IS militants had only “gained the advantage” in fighting in the city, stopping short of confirming reports that the group had seized full control of the Anbar provincial capital.

But while the Pentagon was playing down the onslaught on Ramadi and the humiliating new collapse of the Iraqi security forces, American soldiers were embarking on a Hollywood-style operation just across the border in neighbouring Syria.

As IS fighters stormed through Ramadi on 15 May, US special forces sneaked from their bases in Iraq into Syria and killed 12 IS operatives in a raid on their hideout. The White House later declared that among those killed was Abu Sayyaf, described as an instrumental figure in black-market oil smuggling.

The raid was quickly criticised as an attempt to shift the focus from supporting the Iraqi forces in the fight against IS to a PR stunt aimed at drumming up American bravery. If US forces can muster enough intelligence, combat skills and resources to go after one IS operative, Iraqis asked, why shouldn’t they come to aid their soldiers in Ramadi.

Clearly, the stunning fall of Ramadi has shown that the war against IS is in total disarray largely because Baghdad and Washington, having united in a war to stop the expansion of IS, are now utterly at odds as to how to proceed.

America’s proclamation of bringing the war to a triumphant conclusion has been buffeted by doubts by Iraqis about Washington’s commitment and fears about the motives of its policy.

While Washington remains satisfied with its airstrikes on IS targets and sees nothing further, Iraqis believe that the political limitations set by the White House on the US military have not stopped the militants from taking new ground.

The Iraqi government has been relentlessly calling on US forces to work out a joint strategy that could combine their airpower, weaponry and intelligence resources with Iraqi ground combat capability to retake territories lost to IS.

The Iraqis’ frustration was best illustrated by recent remarks by Martin E Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said that while he didn’t want to see Ramadi fall, its loss wouldn’t reflect the larger picture in the fight against IS.

Earlier, Baghdad and Washington differed publicly on the timetable, tactics and who should take part in the battle to liberate the strategic northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Worse, their main difference remains the role of the Iran-backed Shia militias in the war against IS. While Washington has been preventing Baghdad from resorting to the militias for fear of a backlash from the Sunni population, Baghdad has been relying heavily on fighters from the Shia factions to dislodge IS from its positions.

The fall of Ramadi, however, seems to have left Al-Abadi with no other choice but to resist the American pressure and ask the Shia militias to deploy in Anbar and to be prepared for a counter-offensive to take back Ramadi and the rest of the province.

While acting on a desperate request by the Anbar Provincial Council and tribal leaders to send Shia militias to help fight IS and win back its cities, Al-Abadi seems also to have acted on Clausewitz’s advice that a commander cannot remain for very long in such a state without incurring “the perils of hesitation”.

By sending the Popular Mobilisation Force to Anbar, Al-Abadi has been able to demonstrate a willingness to resist the US script which would have mortgaged the liberation of areas taken by IS to an ambiguous strategy that would not only have prolonged the dangerous standoff but would ultimately have threatened Iraq’s unity.

A lot of the success of Al-Abadi now depends on how the Popular Mobilisation Force will behave in Anbar, not only in driving the IS militants back, but also in winning the trust of the Sunni population.

With its vast territories and a powerful IS force in situ, Anbar is certainly a great military challenge, but it could be a political opportunity too.