As the much publicised attack on Tikrit is underway, it is important to look at the deeper significance of such an operation. Beyond regaining lost territory, the battle for Tikrit will play a defining role in the coming year for Iraq.
As a Symbol
The timing of the operation was by design. Forces moved towards Tikrit on the 24th anniversary of the 1991 uprisings that were brutally crushed by Saddam Hussein. Using this historical narrative, the symbolic importance of regaining Tikrit, Saddam’s home town, cannot to be understated. Being able to retake the city while under the spotlight of the international community provides added significance for Iraqi Forces.
The ISF have yet to show that they are capable of regaining large urban areas, which highlights the importance of this battle against the Islamic State, who are specialists in such warfare. The city, which fell to the Islamic State in June, has been the site of multiple failed operations undertaken by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). This attempt will show to what degree the training provided to the ISF has been effective and what the capabilities of the Islamic State are in defending against large scale military operations.
The operation is also being undertaken without support from the US-led international coalition. The presence of Iranian backed Shia militias, and the Iranian presence on-the-ground means the US are in the backseat. This is an Iraqi lead operation, with Iranian support, which will go a long way to boosting the morale and credentials of the Iraqi Security Forces, should the operation be successful. With Qassem Sulimani, the leader of the Iranian Al-Quds force, participating in operations, the influence of the Iranians is clear. However, they provide a service the US-led coalition cannot. The no-boots-on-ground policy means that frontline coordination must be undertaken by other actors.
A Test Run
Tikrit is undoubtedly being treated as a test run for any future operation in Mosul. The levels of success will go a long way to understanding the currently capabilities of the different military actors in Iraq. The plans for attacks on both Tikrit and Mosul have been telegraphed. The desire to retake these areas and oust the Islamic State from Iraq’s cities is clear. Tikrit is now the proving ground. Beyond this, Tikrit is also needed strategically if any future operations are to be undertaken in Northern and Western Iraq. Southern supply lines, through areas such as Tikrit, will need to be utilised for future operations in areas such as Baji and Mosul.
Dependent on Outcomes
What is also important is how success is achieved. While triumphing against the Islamic State is the aim, the means will play a significant role. The level of destruction will be an important factor despite the majority of Tikrit’s population already having left the city. Islamic State fighters will no doubt rather destroy the city than concede it to Iraqi Forces; however, flattening the city will damage possible future operations. The role of Shia militia groups also worries many. Militia groups have already vowed revenge for the Camp Speicher massacre, where it is reported that up to 1,700 ISF were slaughtered by Islamic State fighters, mostly young cadets. Should we witness the total destruction of the city combined with sectarian atrocities, Iraq’s Sunni community will be pushed even further away from the Shia dominated government in Baghdad. The reported participation of Sunni tribal elements is significant and military coordination of this nature is vital for operations against the Islamic State to be successful, especially for the long-term control of areas such as Tikrit.
With the world watching the pressure to succeed is great. However, in Tikrit the means will become just as important as the end.
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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).