North Africa, West Asia

US airstrikes weaken ISIL but keep it as a viable threat

The US Air Force stood idly by as ISlL swept towards Baghdad, but swiftly scrambled in August to launch airstrikes to halt an unexpected advance towards Irbil – capital of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). 

Zayd Alisa
4 April 2015
Indian Shiite Muslims protest against conflict in Iraq, June 2014.

Indian Shiite Muslims protest against conflict in Iraq, June 2014. Demotix/Rajat Gupta. All rights reserved.Iraq more than three years after the US withdrawal and more than one year since ISIL or ISIS – Islamic State in Iraq and Levant, which initially called itself Al Qaida in Iraq AQI - seized Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, is grappling with an increasingly menacing existential threat by a heavily armed and increasingly barbarous ISIL, which on Jun 10, last year surged towards Baghdad, seizing large swathes of territory, including Tikrit and Iraq’s second largest city Mosul.    

Buoyed by the recent resounding victory in wresting control of the highly strategic province of Diyala, the Iraqi government launched, on Mar 1, a full-scale offensive to drive ISIL out of its vital stronghold of Tikrit, which undoubtedly has not only an immensely symbolic significance as the hometown of toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, but also crucially controls the highway linking Baghdad to Mosul. The Pro-Government Force (PGF) consists of army units, Sunni tribesmen and the increasingly powerful Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) – which includes Shia Militias and volunteers – making up the bulk of the anti-ISIL alliance.

The Pentagon’s highly unusual statement, explicitly emphasizing that the US was not providing any air power in support of the Tikrit operation left no doubt that the US has not only been fiercely against it, but trying its utmost to publicly distance itself from it. This came hard on the heels of another highly damaging public rift: when, alarmingly, on Feb 19, a senior Central Command (CentCom) official explicitly advertised that Iraqi forces backed by US air support intended to stage an all-out assault on Mosul in April or May. But, within a few hours CentCom declared that it would not be able to train enough men in time.  It has become increasingly apparent that the US deliberately made the two announcements, aiming to thwart the Tikrit offensive by sending out the following unmistakable messages: First, the US adamantly refused to provide air support to an Iraqi force that it has not directly trained, let alone one spearheaded by PMF. Second, it was vehemently opposed to any attempt to drive ISIL out of the Sunni heartland by a force that is, not merely overwhelmingly dominated and spearheaded by Iranian-backed Shia militias, but far more alarmingly, guided by Gen. Qassem Suleimanni, the commander of the elite Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And third, it was far too early to launch any major offensive in the Sunni-dominated provinces, such as Anbar, Ninevah and Salahuddin – whose capital is Tikrit. These unambiguous  messages were principally designed to appease, not only the increasingly outspoken critics – from the Republican party, such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham – of Obama’s administration strategy on Iraq and Syria, demanding a more robust US involvement to forestall the mounting Iranian influence, but an even more vehement opposition to any US air support which in Saudi Arabia’s eyes would pave the way to what the Saudi Foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal, on Mar 5, forcefully described as Iran’s takeover of Iraq. Saudi Arabia joined the US-led coalition against ISIL, in September 2014, primarily seeking to cover its tracks in pumping a torrent of funding, arming, logistical support and salaries – which was acknowledged in Oct 2014 by the US Vice president Joe Biden – to extremist Wahhabi Salafi groups, such as Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIL.           

Gen Lloyd Austin, head of CentCom, explicitly confirmed, on Mar 26, that the US has indeed adamantly refused to provide any air support unless Iraq meets its preconditions: First, pulling back the PMF from the battlefield and even more essentially, routing it from leading the Tikrit operation. Second, establishing an Iraqi command. And third, implementing a new US plan. Clearly the US has been disingenuous in its response, claiming that it held off launching airstrikes until March 26 because the Iraqi government did not request assistance.      

Although previous attempts by the Iraqi government to recapture Tikrit spectacularly failed, it is abundantly clear that this offensive by the PGF has made seismic headway in dislodging ISIL, not merely from its chief strongholds surrounding Tikrit, such as AL Dour village – hometown of Izzat Al Douri, Saddam’s right hand man –, Abu Ajeel village and Al Alam district, but more significantly advancing into Tikrit city, effectively confining ISIL to the city centre. And with ISIL’s back up against the wall, it is hardly surprising that it is tenaciously holding its ground. Therefore, it was highly premature for Gen. Austin to contend, on Mar 26, that the Tikrit operation has irrevocably stalled. After all, it is undeniable that it took the US in 2004, two strenuous attempts and far longer to oust AQI from Fallujah.                

Ever since the end of the US occupation of Iraq in 2011, it has been steadfastly determined to shore up its waning influence by ensuring that Iraqi security forces remain inadequately equipped and thereby heavily reliant on US support and air cover. Even when ISIL seriously threatened Baghdad, in Jun 2014, the US showed absolutely no signs of urgency. Instead, Obama’s first response, on Jun 19, was to insist that any US assistance was contingent on forging a new broad-based inclusive government. Despite US groundless claims that its airstrikes halted ISIL’s advance, it was, however, beyond doubt the Shia volunteers and militias, who enthusiastically answered the Shia top religious cleric, Grand Aytollah Ali Al Sistani’s, call to arms, that ultimately stopped ISIL in its tracks.

While the US stood idly by as ISlL swept towards Baghdad, it swiftly scrambled, on Aug 8, to launch airstrikes to halt its unexpected advance towards Irbil – capital of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The US Air Force has worked hand in glove with the Kurdish forces (Peshmerga) to dislodge ISIL from Kurdish areas, such as Zumar, Sinjar and Kobani, in both Iraq and Syria. In stark contrast, even with the appointment of Haider Al Abadi as new Prime Minister and the formation of a new inclusive government, the US airstrikes over areas outside the Kurdish region – which began, on Sept 15 – have neither intensified nor gathered momentum, remaining to all intents and purposes mere window-dressing. All along, the US Air Force has deliberately stayed on the sidelines as the PMF clawed back control of strategic areas, such as Amerly, Jurf Al Sakar, and Diyala province.

But the Tikrit offensive has laid bare the fact that the US has consistently been aiming to weaken ISIL, while keeping it as a viable threat to accomplish the following: First, utilising it as a perfect pretext to ramp up and entrench its presence. Second, overhauling, if not utterly replacing the current Iraqi army – which it perceives as heavily infiltrated by the PMF. Third, fulfilling Saudi Arabia’s overarching goal in joining the US-led coalition: that is, practically preventing the PMF from clearing ISIL from Sunni-dominated provinces, especially Anbar, by formulating a purely Sunni force called the National Guard. This force would be ostensibly under the overall supervision of Abadi, who is Iraq’s commander-in-chief, but in reality – as Ahmed Al Mesari the head of the Sunni bloc in Parliament, the Union of Iraqi forces, forcefully stressed – Abadi’s role would be restricted to financing and arming, while the provincial councils would effectively oversee, not just the selection of fighters, but far more crucially, direct control. Hence, preparing the ground for a new purely Sunni Regional Government – identical to the KRG, which is indisputably an independent region in all but name – with not only its own army perilously threatening Baghdad, but above all a highly hostile foreign policy toeing the Saudi line.

As part of US frantic efforts to reassure Saudi Arabia, it dispatched Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Iraq on March 9. He ominously warned that Sunni Arab countries – led by Saudi Arabia – were profoundly outraged by the Abadi government’s glacial pace in empowering Sunnis. Adding, that unless Sunni alienation is swiftly addressed, the sustainability of the US-led coalition would be critically undermined. Yet, more strikingly, he asserted on March 7, that Abadi’s key task must be balancing Iran’s role in empowering Shia militias with Iraq’s partnership with the US - thereby, making no secret that Abadi had no option but to theatrically pretend to be requesting US assistance while in reality the US had already decided to intervene in the Tikrit offensive. US reasons for doing so are as follows. First, to wrest control of the leadership of the operation from Iran’s allies in the PMF. Second, to bolster its influence on the ground by ensuring that US-trained Iraqi units are leading the operation. Third, to snatch credit for any victory from the PMF. Fourth, to soothe the frayed nerves of its staunchest ally, Saudi Arabia. Fifth, to shore up the standing of increasingly US-leaning Shia political leaders, such as Abadi, Amar Al Hakim leader of the Islamic Supreme Council and even the once arch US enemy, Muqtada Al Sadr, all of whom feel increasingly threatened by the mounting popularity of their respective rivals: Nouri Al Maliki, the previous prime minister, Hadi Al Amiri ,leader of the powerful Badr organisation and Qais Al Khazaly, leader of the formidable Asaib Ahl Al Haq. Sixth, to safeguard its newly-established, yet vulnerable influence and military presence.

Surely, the PMF’s unequivocal decision on March 26, to flatly refuse to take part in any US-led offensive while also firmly holding their ground puts the US under considerable pressure to escalate its airstrikes as it strives to outperform their substantial accomplishments. But, given the intensifying internal uproar and a desperate need for highly motivated fighters, Abadi, on March 29, was forced to discretely back down, setting the stage for the final offensive, which has successfully cleansed Tikrit.

It is high-time for the US to learn from its ill-conceived campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Utilising Al Qaida and relying on Saudi Arabia to prop up its interests would spectacularly backfire, inevitably leading to terror outrages in New York, London, Paris, Brussels, Sydney, Baghdad and Damascus.         

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