Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Part 2: From Anbar to Aleppo and Back Again

The most recent violence in Iraq did not appear suddenly, as if from nowhere. It’s been brewing since the US troop withdrawal in 2011, and was established during the US occupation, as discussed in Part I of this essay series. The insurgency’s fires have been flamed by the civil war that has been raging in Syria for roughly the same period of time. The conflict’s regional extension is the topic of Part 2 of my essay series on the increasingly likely Iraqi civil war.

Part 2: From Anbar to Aleppo and Back Again

ISIS may have been born in Iraq, but it came of age in Syria. Founded in 2003 as a branch of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) dedicated to combatting the US occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq was one of many AQI-led terrorist groups that carried out attacks against both foreign forces and the newly elected Iraqi government of Nouri Al-Maliki during the civil war of 2006-2007. The group has long operated out of Al-Anbar province, while receiving aid and fighters from Syrian provinces across the border, where tribal connections run deeper than national boundaries. Despite a lull in attacks during the US surge, ISI operations began to ramp up as troop withdrawals began in 2009. The civilian death toll in Iraq has only continued to climb and each year reaches new, morbid heights:

And then came Syria. Already the launching ground and regrouping point for ISI attacks in Iraq, the rapid disintegration of government power in Syria provided the perfect vacuum for the group to step in and claim to join those fighting for freedom. At the same time as the final US troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, Syria was descending into a civil war that would eventually act as a magnet for extremist groups including ISI, all of whom wanted a piece of the post-war spoils. The Islamic State in Iraq quickly transformed into the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (or “and Syria,” or “and the Levant”) to denote its expanded mission, and has now declared its name as simply “Islamic State,” indicating its goal of creating a caliphate that spans the Muslim world. In July 2012, ISI declared the “Breaking of the Walls” campaign, which culminated with over 500 militants freed in a prison break from the infamous Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad in July 2013. It broke off from Al Qaeda in January 2014, when arguments among the leadership over tactics and strategy apparently caused an irreparable rift.

Yet few observers connected ISI’s military advances in Northeast Syria to a military strategy to overrun and conquer the Maliki government in Iraq. It seemed too bold; too likely to attract unwanted US attention. Unfortunately for stakeholders in the conflict, boldness was exactly the strategy ISIS would employ. Maps of ISIS’s current positions show clearly their advance through eastern Syria, into Anbar where they captured Ramadi and Fallujah in January 2014 (while also consolidating positions in Aleppo province and Raqqa in Syria), and towards Baghdad via the Haditha-Ramadi corridor:

In an excellent analysis, the Institute for the Study of War shows how these movements reflect ISIS’s ultimate goal of overrunning Baghdad by controlling various belts around the city, which the group accomplished even before the capture of Mosul. While ceding various western cities in Syria to the Asad regime, ISIS has left uncommitted forces in deir ez-Zour, Raqqa, and Aleppo, suggesting that the group intends to fight this war on many fronts despite the current focus on Iraq. The group “hybridizes terrorism, guerilla warfare, and conventional warfare,” meaning that any response will have to go beyond conventional warfare as well. One advantage the Maliki government does have is the clarity with which ISIS has presented its next target, Baghdad. It is also likely that symbolic attacks will take place throughout the next month during Ramadan. The report concludes that:

[The Iraqi Army or IA] must consider how to array forces to prevent the fall of Ramadi, to disrupt the consolidation of ISIS northern control, and to counter any ISIS strategy to isolate and neutralize IA defenses and offensive capabilities such as the air assets at Balad Airbase near Baghdad.

Despite US desires to avoid another war in the Middle East, it now also seems that the administration has little choice but to accelerate its involvement not only in Iraq but also in Syria, much as Iran and Russia have already done. To not act would be to invite the creation of new failed state and terrorist safe haven, one that will largely be blamed on America’s occupation in the coming years. Yet the US cannot act focus solely on Iraq. Striking in Iraq state but not Syria would also provide a safe haven for ISIS to regroup and resupply in the face of any military defeat. A one-sided strike could also be a serious public relations misstep: the US is already seen as unfairly supportive of the Maliki government and its Shi’ite allies; to step in to protect the Maliki government but not intervene against Asad in Syria would bring charges that the US has thrown its lot in with the Shi’ites exclusively, and would almost certainly lead to Sunni groups refusing to participate in a political process. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned of US strikes in Iraq having just that effect:

This perception would help them mobilize support from the Sunni majority that does not share the extremists' agenda. It is essential that the government of Iraq and its supporters do everything possible to avoid falling into this trap.

Cloaking US involvement in any military intervention would be a possible solution to such issues of public perception, which would largely be achieved by forming an unlikely regional partnership with Iran and Saudi Arabia and allowing them to lead the military charge. The US should also do all in its power to avoid the appearance of sectarian or regional partisanship by reaching out equally to Sunni, Shi’ite, Kurdish, and other ethnic, religious, and tribal leaders.

The US must also begin to act while intervention is still likely to succeed against ISIS. A moving militia is a weaker militia, and while ISIS is now the best-funded and possibly best-equipped terrorist group in the world, it is still spread over two countries and will have to fight offensives on multiple fronts. Divisions within the insurgency are ripe for exploitation, as other rebel groups in Syria and the Sunni community in Iraq grapple with ISIS’s conception of a strict Islamic caliphate, and some openly battle the group for control of border crossings into Iraq.

Yet the intransigence of the Maliki government will not make intervention easy or quick, as it has become clear that the opposition will not work with an administration led by such a controversial figure. Of the 500,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Iraq fleeing the fighting in the last weeks, many have expressed equal distrust of ISIS and the Maliki government. Rumors abound that the government is prepared to use destructive barrel bombs, made infamous for their indiscriminate brutality by the Asad regime, against Sunni areas. Under the shadow of a regime so many trust so little, at minimum a US intervention must begin with political transition and consensus-building among different political parties and regional and tribal leaders. It must also be undertaken with the knowledge that confining it to Iraq will not be possible, nor even desirable, and that a second front in Syria is likely to follow any battles in Iraq.

Secretary of State John Kerry appears to be pursuing just these ends, negotiating both with Saudi and Iranian interlocutors and Iraqi tribal leaders. Pres. Obama also appears to be pursuing a multipronged strategy of military support to the Iraqi armed forces and material aid to the less extreme factions of the Syrian opposition, coupled with the diplomacy of Kerry. Even if the current intervention expands, and is successful, this regional fight will not be an easy one, and the US should brace itself for more waves of unthinkable violence to come. The end of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 will likely redefine the region’s borders, and if history teaches us anything, it is that regional unraveling is rarely peaceful, and is often, if not always, bloody.

1 comment:

  1. Good thing we have the world cup to distract us from all this nonsense. At this point the Iraqi government needs to step up and figure out if they are going to keep Maliki or choose a new prime minister and/or government. The walk out today of many members of the Iraqi government seems to signal that al-Maliki has been losing support and that his camp may no longer have majority control. I know its Ramadan but this is a major step back for the country at a time when you have such a dangerous military force so close to Baghdad. The city is well defended and can literally swallow armies within its streets so i don't believe IS will attempt to take it in a brazen attempt, yet. Baghdad is really the last stand as there is not much else to defend within Iraq since Tikrit seems to be all but lost at this point. A solution seems extremely far off at this point and starts with the Iraqi government getting itself organized.