One step forward, two steps back

The capture of Tikrit was touted as a turning point in the conflict in Iraq. Despite it taking weeks longer than suspected and requiring involvement from the international coalition, the operation was deemed a military success. The city remains, to a large degree, intact and collateral damage was minimised. However, despite this the momentum was lost.

In the last few weeks, Islamic State has been on the offensive. Their fighters countered after Tikrit, attacking both the city of Ramadi and the Baji refinery.  The Islamic State offensive in Anbar was a blow for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). After the Tikrit operation Iraqi officials had identified the governorate of Anbar as their next target. Many even put forward the idea of a two fronted operation, pushing forward not only in Anbar but also areas north of Salahadin and South West Kirkuk. However, it was the Islamic State that took the initiative.

In Ramadi, Iraqi Security forces fled Albu Ghanim Island, just north of the city and the Islamic State utilised this to push forward. Some reports claim that the Islamic State controlled up to 20% of the city, a huge dent to Iraq’s embryonic plan to launch an offensive in the area and causing thousands to flee the city fearing violence. At the same time Islamic State fighters pushed forth from Baiji town towards the refinery of the same name. While Baiji town has long been controlled by the Islamic State, Iraq’s largest oil refinery had been under ISF control. Even slight incursions into these strategic positions are a worrying sign of the combat strength of the Iraqi army.

Islamic State fighters have been pushed back, the refinery is back under control and Ramadi centre is secure but it remains a contested city. The nature of these operations by Islamic State goes against much of the post Tikrit rhetoric of the Iraqi government. Buoyed by the success in Tikrit, the Iraqi leadership seemed confident that the tide had turned and that their much touted “spring offensive” was in full swing.

While the Islamic State have been on the back foot and lost large areas of land they once controlled, they still remain a formidable force. They have lost areas, while consolidating elsewhere. Islamic State losing territory to Peshmerga fighters in the south-west of Kirkuk Governorate, while pushing forward in Baiji and Ramadi has shown the fluid nature of the conflict in Iraq. It also shows that the Islamic State still have the ability to take the initiative strategically.

The key highlight to note is that the majority of Iraqi troops can still be out muscled by Islamic State fighters. Despite a training program spanning nine Iraqi Army brigades they still lack the capability to take the fight to the Islamic State. In Tikrit, it was the Shia Militias and Popular Mobilisation units (Hasht al-Shabi) that led the charge. Even then they still required air power from the international coalition to push the Islamic State out of the centre of the city. Iraq’s elite forces, such as the Golden Brigades are shuttled from battle to battle depending where their support is needed.  These elite forces are well trained an effective, however they make up only a small fraction of the ISF. Iraq’s regular armed forces and federal police are ill equipped and undertrained to be dealing with an enemy such as the Islamic State. The conflict in Iraq is reaching a point of stagnation. While the Islamic State has largely been contained, the ISF are unable to capitalise. Over reliance on Shia militia forces and the International Coalition airstrikes have been papering over the cracks in the ISF’s capabilities.

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It is difficult to see how the ISF, in their current state, will move forward. Other actors need to be identified. Shia militias have proven effective; however, pushing them forward into restive Sunni dominated areas could prove counterproductive and problematic.  What is clear is that there need to utilise localised security forces or highly trained specialised combat forces. With too few of the latter, Iraq will have to look at other options.  With the Sahwa movement being a pivotal factor in bringing Iraq’s civil war to close, local actors will also be those that help end the current conflict. Whether it is through the establishment of a National Guard, a concept that stagnated due to political disagreement, or the utilisation and support of local tribal actors, a new dynamic is needed.

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About MERI:  The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.  Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.

MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).

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