Battle against Islamic State militants is just beginning
Analysis: US strikes have limited effect on militarily astute movement
Displaced children from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, head towards the Syrian border, near the town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah governorate in Iraq. Photograph: Reuters/Rodi Said
US bombs may be falling once more on Iraq, but this week’s dramatic intervention belies a stark truth on the ground: the fightback against Islamic State, formerly known as Isis, has not begun. Indeed, it is not yet on the agenda.
Military analysts and the Pentagon admit that, while the use of military force, two and a half years after the last US troops left Iraq, marks a turning point for the US, for the jihadist insurgency it barely marks a change in the direction of travel.
About 20 strikes so far have achieved two short-term objectives: advances by Isis into Kurdistan have been checked and the militants’ ability to manoeuvre freely without fear of the skies has been ended.
But the bigger questions over Isis’s power and how to curb it remain.
“We’ve had a very temporary effect,” Lieutenant-General Bill Mayville, director of operations at the US joint staff, said on Monday evening.
“I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by Isis.
“They’re very well organised. They are very well equipped. They co-ordinate their operations. And they have thus far shown the ability to attack on multiple axes. This is not insignificant.”
The coming weeks and months will be critical. While the moves open to Baghdad and Washington are limited, the jihadis’ options are broad in range and scope.
Military analysts are beginning to parse Isis’s campaign objectives – many of which are well telegraphed in the group’s own internal propaganda materials.
Isis attack on the Kurds – only a month ago described as a bastion of strength compared to the shambling, Baghdad-controlled regular army – fits a pattern of moves calculated to shock.
“Erbil was seen as a safe haven,” says John Drake, Iraq specialist at the private security and intelligence firm AKE. “It has a large foreign expatriate contingent; it has many oil industry workers and a large number of refugees. For Erbil to fall would not just be an embarrassment, it would be a disaster.”
Even for Erbil to be advanced upon, if not attacked, would cause “scenes of panic”, Mr Drake adds.
“The psychological impact is very important to Isis in these battles. So many of their major gains have happened because their opponents have run away.”
But the Erbil offensive also fits into a broader objective of consolidating territory.
“Isis is trying to establish a caliphate. And that caliphate has to have territorial integrity,” says Jessica Lewis, a former US military intelligence officer in Iraq and now research director at the Institute for the Study of War.
The offensive against the Kurds, she says, aims to secure a hinterland for Isis around Mosul – the group’s financial and spiritual hub.
To the east of Mosul, the Great Zab river provides a natural boundary, and securing the crossings at Kalak and al-Kuwayr would be a boost to Isis’s geostrategic position. The group’s armour and new weaponry, garnered in a string of victories in Syria, will be critical to this.
Whether Isis’s Kurdish offensive succeeds or stalls, it is likely the group’s leadership has well-advanced plans for equally disruptive operations elsewhere in their sprawling territory.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)