The recharged war in Iraq that got underway in June 2014 is moving towards its second month. A remarkable feature of this phase is the formation of a largely unacknowledged coalition of four states opposed to the advance of the extreme Sunni paramilitaries across much of northwestern Iraq.
Iran's involvement is clear enough: senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers are active in Baghdad, and Iranian reconnaissance-drones are being used to aid Iraq's troubled armed forces. Syria too is active, with Bashar al-Assad's air-force conducting intermittent (and perhaps largely symbolic) strikes against ISIL targets inside Iraq.
This reflects a shift in the Assad regime's position. As long as ISIL could be considered little more than an irritant in Syria (even if occupying substantial ground), the group had a propaganda value for Damascus, which could project an image of being steadfast in the face of radical Islam and even secure tacit acceptance by western governments in the process.
Now that ISIL is getting stronger and more confident - symbolised in its declaration of an "Islamic State" in the territory it controls - the potential challenge to Damascus's as well as Baghdad's security is evident. Assad may therefore continue to encourage periodic cross-border air-raids, but he will also work harder to damage ISIL within Syria.
The late shift
The two other states in this extraordinary anti-ISIL confluence are the United States and Russia.
United States forces in the region are being steadily expanded, though it remains difficult to discern the full extent of personnel deployment in Iraq. This is partly because several thousand Americans in Iraq were already in Iraq before the new war erupted - including diplomats, weapons-technicians and private military contractors. It is sure, however, that three further groups of military personnel are now entering Iraq.
The first is composed of security people (probably around 300 in total) assigned to guard diplomats and civilians; the second (at least 100) to safeguard Baghdad airport, among them probably specialist helicopter-crews available to retrieve aircrew (the potential need is highlighted by the US navy's regular F-18 reconnaissance sorties off the USS George HW Bush carrier in the Persian Gulf).
The third group is troops, mostly special-forces personnel, sent to Baghdad and elsewhere to boost Iraqi government forces in their operations. The key point here is that the overall authority, US Central Command, calculates that its operation is unlikely to yield results for several weeks (see Daniel Wasserbly, “US assesses mission in Iraq, considers military options”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 2 July 2014).
US personnel may already be advising Iraqi army troops in their stalled attempt to retake the city of Tikrit, a political necessity for Nouri al-Maliki's government to demonstrate that it was seen to be doing something to address a military disaster. But the US military is taking a longer-term view of its work in Iraq.
Russia completes this unlikely anti-ISIS coalition. Its main involvement so far is the provision of a number of Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft. The Su-25 is a robust if relatively slow-flying aircraft of the 1970s, roughly analogous to the US's A-10 Warthog (though less heavily armed). It was widely deployed by the Iraqi air-force in the war with Iran (1980-88), and used by the Soviet air-force in the two Chechen wars (1994-96 and 1999-2002).
Few if any survived in Iraqi air-force service after the 1991 war; so it is close to a quarter-century since any Iraqi pilots flew this aircraft - which like all ground-attack planes requires particular skills and much practice. The implication is that if Su-25s are used against ISIL and other militias in the coming weeks, it is near-certain that Russian pilots will fly them.
Thus, both US and Russian forces are preparing to aid the Maliki government at a quite significant level, and may even cooperate more closely than either Washington or Moscow will want to acknowledge. Indeed, that may already be happening: the hundred US troops inserted to help protect Baghdad's airport will be guarding the very same base from which Su-25s are already flying, no doubt with Russian pilots.
The weeks ahead
If the war is creating strange alliances, a question of timescales may also become relevant as events unfold. Neither US and Russian support for Iraq, nor any from Iran, will have much effect on the situation until mid-July. This means that ISIL's planners have a short window of opportunity to consolidate their recent gains. Several sources indicate that ISIL already has groups in place in western Baghdad to aid any assault on the city (see "The Iraq Crisis [Part 111]: Is Baghdad at Risk?", 30 June 2014).
The next two weeks, then, are an acutely dangerous period (see Borzou Daragahi, "Iraqi capital nervously awaits Isis attack", Financial Times, 1 July 2014). The aim of any ISIS attack will not be to take control of the whole city, for Shi’a militias in the eastern Baghdad districts are strong enough to contest that; instead it will be to damage and demoralise the regime to an extent that Baghdad can't prevent the Islamic State consolidating itself.
That outcome would give ISIS a further lease of life. It would also be welcomed by many in the region, not least Saudi Arabia. But it would also be no more than a temporary gain in a war which may yet have far more dreadful human consequences.
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