Viable strategy needed in Iraq as al-Qaeda militants advance towards Baghdad

It is significant that major oil fields lie across Isis’s line of advance

Isis fighters guard a checkpoint in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Photograph: Reuters

Isis fighters guard a checkpoint in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Photograph: Reuters

Fri, Jun 13, 2014, 01:00

Iraqi forces were yesterday preparing a counterattack in an effort to regain the territory over-run by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) fighters during the last week, while Kurdish peshmerga fighters had taken control of Kirkuk.

The situation has been euphemistically described by a US state department official as “very fluid”. The motivation levels and performance of the Iraqi government forces can only be said to be poor and, while the US government has promised to expedite supplies of military material, it has stopped short of promising actual military intervention on the ground. Government spokesmen in the US and UK are unanimous in emphasising that the Maliki government needs to shoulder its own military responsibilities.

What has become obvious over the past year is that there has been a step-change in the Islamists’ strategy, particularly in the case of the Isis movement. Al-Qaeda inspired and largely Saudi backed, Isis has not concerned itself with carrying out attacks on western targets. Instead it has engaged in a campaign of territorial expansion in its pursuit of establishing an Islamic caliphate.

The seizure of the flashpoint city of Samarra brings Isis forces within 110km of Baghdad. It could be argued that they are effectively redrawing the map of the Middle East as the territory they control now spans both Iraq and Syria. It is now possible to travel from Falluja in Iraq to Raqqa in Syria without leaving Isis-controlled territory.

Fault lines

As the divisions between Iraq’s Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities become more apparent in the face of the new Isis campaign, commentators discuss the real possibility of the country fracturing along historic sectarian fault lines. The rapidly deteriorating situation has prompted Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the now largely dormant Mahdi Army, to call for volunteers to protect Shia holy sites as Iraq has found itself caught between the “jaws of terrorism and extremism”.

While both Turkey and Iran have interests in Iraq they have found their capacity to influence the situation limited while the US has been widely criticised for its lack of reaction. Jen Psaki at the state department has stated that “you can expect that we will provide additional assistance to the Iraqi government to combat the threat”. This assistance falls far short of military intervention on the ground and it could be argued that even a modest level of intervention using airpower could have stopped the Isis advance. However, that would have raised questions internationally as to why the Iraq situation merited the use of air strikes while the Syrian conflict did not.

One strategic commentator has also pointed out how this situation might paradoxically benefit wider US strategy. From a western perspective the current upheaval in the Middle East actually neutralises several parties’ “capacity for mischief”. The transfer of control in Iraq from the Sunnis to the Shia has created a secular blood feud. In turn, this has totally negated Iran’s influence in the region. The result has been that Sunni forces have ranged themselves against Iran and also the Shia of Hizbullah. At the same time the Sunni movements are now fully engaged in opposition to their local opponents. From a western point of view the feared terror campaign has not emerged, as forces representing the factions within Islam have waged war against each other.

Ultimately, the oil issue might galvanise the West into action. The fighting has not so far impacted on Iraq’s 3.3 million barrels a day oil production. Oil firms such as Exxon Mobil, BP and the Chinese National Petroleum Corp operate major concerns in Iraq. It is significant that major oil fields lie within the Kurdish-controlled area and also lie across Isis’s line of advance towards Baghdad.

Advance

Spokesmen for the Kurdish administration have pointed out how their peshmerga fighters have opposed the Isis advance. Also, in recent days, the peshmerga have acquired some of the arms and equipment abandoned by the Iraqi army. They have access to light armour and field artillery and, unlike the Iraqi army, seemed determined to oppose the Isis advance.

The immediate strategic decision for the West is what grouping should be facilitated to oppose Isis if direct intervention on the ground is to be avoided. It would seem that supporting the Kurds might buy the time needed to allow the Iraqi army to reorganise itself.

In the long term, a viable strategy is needed to stabilise this troubled country. Dr David Murphy lectures at the centre for military history and strategic studies at NUI Maynooth

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