Sunday, June 22, 2014

Drawing the Frontlines

Sunni jihadis and their Baathist allies are continuing to pick up gains in Sunni Arab-majority areas; while the Shia-dominated Iraqi government begins to fight on its home turf.

First, there are some numbers for the original disaster:

But since an estimated 90,000 soldiers shed their uniforms and abandoned their posts as ISIS swept across northern Iraq this month, it has called for new “volunteers” to join the armed forces.

I suspect this doesn't mean 90,000 soldiers but 90,000 security forces. There would have been a mix in the north of army, police, and security guard-type units, so I doubt that just the army broke and ran.

Which means that Iraq suffered the loss of under 10% of total strength (of just over 900,000). Which is a defeat. But the loss is survivable.

In the west, the Sunni jihadis continue to make gains:

On Saturday, fighters seized the border post near the town of al-Qaim, helping ISIL secure supply lines to Syria, where it has exploited the chaos of the three-year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad to establish a major presence. ...

On Sunday, Sunni militants led by ISIL expanded their grip to the towns of Rawa and Ana along the Euphrates River east of al-Qaim, as well as the town of Rutba further to the south on a road leading from Jordan to Baghdad.

This is along the old "rat line" that allowed Assad to funnel supplies and suicide bombers to al Qaeda in Iraq when we fought there. So dormant supporters have the opportunity to become active again.

North of Baghdad, Iraqi resistance is stiffening:

Overnight, ISIL fighters attacked the town of al-Alam, north of Tikrit, according to witnesses and police in the town. The attackers were repelled by security forces and tribal fighters, they said, adding that two ISIL fighters had been killed and two others arrested. ...

There was a lull in fighting at Iraq's largest refinery, Baiji, 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital near Tikrit, Sunday morning. The site had been transformed into a battlefield since Wednesday as Sunni fighters launched an assault on the plant. Militants entered the large compound, but were fended off by Iraqi military units and currently surround the refinery's main gates.

Knowing that getting captured means their death has apparently stiffened resolve to hold. That's the problem with brutality. it can make you run or it can make you fight with desperation. Hard to say how that plays out ahead of time.

The jihadis and their Baathist friends would be smarter to leave an escape route for Iraqi defenders rather than surrounding them in order to encourage the run reaction rather than the fight reaction.

But the Iraqis are still having problems gathering troops to fight on the front north of Baghdad. Remember, the Iraqi military is still a counter-insurgency force. Most of the 800,000 ground forces left are security guards or police and are strategically immobile, tied to defending their specific locations.

Much of the army is probably in the same condition. Our presence after 2011 was supposed to turn this force into a conventional army capable of fighting other big units. But we didn't do that.

So relatively few of Iraq's military are capable of moving to the the front and conducting offensive operations, I imagine. This is one reason why Iraq is calling for Shia volunteers.

The tiny Iraqi air force is at least attempting to strike back:

An air strike on the insurgent-controlled Iraqi city of Tikrit killed at least seven people on Sunday, as the authorities seek to stem a swift Sunni militant offensive.

But the air strikes are unbelievably small, thus far, limiting their effectiveness. And some are worried that Iraq's call for Shia volunteers means our intervention would be seen as becoming the Shia air force (back to the first link):

Speaking in London, retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former head of coalition forces in Iraq, raised similar concerns on Wednesday. “This cannot be the United States being the air force of Shia militias,” he said of potential U.S. strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq.

He has a point. But a very limited one. We'd be supporting the Iraqi military and not the small militia presence (although at the front, the militias would be a larger fraction of the front line force, of course).

Nobody seems to mind all that much that Assad of Syria is relying more on sectarian loyal militias and foreign sectarian spearheads (Hezbollah and the Iranian-created Shia foreign legion). At some level you go to support the army at war that you have and not the one you wish you had.

I'll note that in the early days of the Iraq War, I counted Shia militias despite their problems for the long run in the Iraqi order of battle because they defended home turf that freed up Coalition and new Iraqi forces from having to protect. In 2008, Maliki took them down in Basra.

So militias are always a potential problem in the long run. But in the short run you have to survive.

I'll also note the oddity of arguing that Shia militia presence--some backed by Iran--to fight ISIS and the Baathists disqualifies Iraq from our air support; but some are arguing we should work with Iran (!) to fight the Sunni Arab offensive! I'll take the lesser of two evils to support the Shia militias rather than cut out the middleman and go right to supporting the proxy sponsors in Tehran, thank you very much.

Anyway, the Sunni Arab jihadis and their Baathist allies of the moment (they are already fighting each other in clashes--just green-on-blue friction and probably not crippling at this point) are securing Sunni Arab majority areas while the Shias are falling back to Shia majority areas.

Then we'll see if the Iraqis can use their numerical superiority to retake ground.

And we'll see if there are Sunni Arabs left who remember the disaster of letting the jihadis in and will again work with the Shia-dominated government to redefeat the al Qaeda types.

Meanwhile, the Kurds have been quiet. I assume that they are improving their positions around Kirkuk and are preparing for a major operation to go after Mosul.

In a less-imperfect world, Kurdish units would go to the Baghdad area to spearhead the counter-attack back north and into Anbar. The Kurds could gain a lot in a bargain for that type of assistance.

Sadly, the real war against al Qaeda jihadis is taking place in Iraq right now. We need to fight them there by providing Iraq the needed aid to kill the jihadis.

If we don't, on the theory that they are a "splinter" and not "core" al Qaeda, that cast out splinter group will become strong enough to take over the franchise and declare themselves the real al Qaeda. Strong horses get to do that.

UPDATE: The Iranians don't seem very "outreachee" on this issue:

Iran's supreme leader condemned U.S. intervention in Iraq on Sunday, accusing Washington of seeking control as Sunni insurgents drove toward Baghdad from the Syrian border and consolidated positions in the north and west.

They're evil--not stupid. We sometimes seem like the reverse.