IRAQ: A TIME TO ACT
By Anthony H. Cordesman
06 Aug 14. On June 10, 2014, the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to what is now called the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or ISIS). Since that time, the Islamic State has shown a surprising ability to mix religious extremism with effective strategy and military action. It has not made the mistake of rushing into further military action in areas where it might take substantial losses, like a Shi’ite-dominated Baghdad or key Shrine cities like Karbala. It has not abandoned gains in Syria for gains in Iraq. It has not focused on Shi’ite “heretics” at the cost of failing to score gains against the Kurds. And it has done all too competent a job of capitalizing on its gains to win broad support from jihadist fighters and other violent Sunni extremist groups—much of it from al Qaeda affiliates like the al Nusra Front.
The Growing Dangers and Costs of Letting the Islamic State Go Unchallenged
It is still unclear what the overall strategies of the Islamic State are in Syria and Iraq. Also unclear is whether it can consolidate a lasting hold on power in the face of the Sunni backlash against its extremism and the challenges it faces in dealing with problems of economics and governance, as well as from other Sunni factions. So far, however, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has largely been pushed on the defensive, and other Syrian Sunni rebel factions have steadily lost ground.
As for Iraq, the Islamic State has shown that it can do an excellent job of focusing on pragmatic key infrastructure targets like refineries and dams, economic targets like some of the oilfields the Kurds had occupied, and move toward surrounding Baghdad and pushing down to the border with Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It is still far from clear how well it can secure the divided loyalties of the Sunni tribes or deal with competing armed Islamist factions and the former elite that surrounded Saddam—which are often called Baathists but are largely military and political figures displaced from power.
The United States has had some reasons to wait. It did need to examine its military options in view of the weakness of the Iraqi security forces and the authoritarian, self-seeking sectarian corruption of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and those around him. It is often far easier to talk about using U.S. military strength that create real world intelligence and targeting capabilities than to use U.S. air and missile power, kill key ISIS leaders and fighting cadres, and avoid killing Sunni civilians and collateral damage.
Maliki has also steadily corrupted and polarized the Iraqi security forces and central government since coming back into power following the 2010 election, and there are serious limits to what Special Forces and other U.S. advisers can do without taking sides in the renewed civil war that Maliki has provoked. The United States needed time to determine how it could find ways to aid the Iraqi security forces and Iraq, rather than helping Maliki, furthering sectarian and ethnic division, and assisting Iran in gaining influence through the presence in Iraq of elements of its Revolutionary Guards Corps.
It has been more than a month since that options study was completed, however, and the Islamic State has so far gained steadily each week in which the United States has failed to act. It continues to score gains in the area around Baghdad. It has won significant battles with the Pesh Merga, in part because of a lack of financial and military support from the Maliki government. It has built up a growing threat to key elements of Iraq’s infrastructure and created major new economic pressures on the Iraqis in Shi’ite and Kurdish areas by disrupting trade and exports from Turkey.
The Islamic State is also triggering massive internal displacements of more than 1 million Iraqis out of a population of some 33 million and creating a revival of Shi’ite militias and pressures