Last week, the Iraqi government announced that it would concentrate its efforts against ISIS not in the north, where Mosul could be easily cut off and the highly effective Kurdish forces augmented, but in Anbar province to the west. The new strategy has not produced much success as of yet, and may have prompted ISIS to conduct pre-emptive strikes on the beleaguered provincial capital of Ramadi. Hundreds of families were put to flight from Abu Ghanim, a village three miles from Ramadi, while Iraqi forces struggled to react (via Matt Vespa):
Islamic State militants launched a fierce attack Wednesday to capture the city of Ramadi, dealing a setback to a newly launched Iraqi military offensive in the Sunni-dominated region.
Sunni tribal leaders who have been holding out in the city, 70 miles west of Baghdad, said they were short of weapons and ammunition and were under intense pressure from the extremists, said Sterling Jensen, an assistant professor at the United Arab Emirates’ National Defense College in Abu Dhabi. Jensen keeps in close contact with tribal leaders.
An Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim, acknowledged that the militants “gained a foothold in some areas” in Anbar Province, the Associated Press reported.
He said reinforcements were dispatched to the province. “The situation is under control and the standoff will be resolved in the coming hours,” he told the AP.
Yeah, that’s not exactly victory. It’s questionable whether Ibrahim’s confidence is justified in this battle, too, and certainly the Iraqi strategy in toto. The Daily Mail reports that Iraqi battle priorities have analysts scratching their heads:
“Anbar differs from Tikrit and Salaheddin more broadly because IS is much more entrenched there,” said Kirk Sowell, the publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter.
Jihadist fighters had a presence in Anbar long before the June 2014 offensive that saw the government lose around a third of the country to IS.
“This will have to be a limited-goals campaign to be successful,” Sowell said. …
It took 10,000 US Marines to seize Fallujah from insurgents a decade ago and analysts agreed that retaking it now would be too big an ask for Iraqi forces.
“Anbar, and especially Fallujah, is like Asterix’s village,” said Victoria Fontan, a professor at American University Duhok Kurdistan, referring to an unconquerable town in the French comic book series.
The province is packed with experienced fighters and while some Sunni tribes have allied with the government, others are fighting alongside IS or sitting on the fence.
Why not swing north instead, cut off Mosul, and link up with the Peshmerga? That would allow the Iraqis to pressure Anbar from the north and east eventually, and postpone the Sunni-vs-Shi’a conflict that will emerge as part of that fight. The answer appears to be Iran, who wants to control Iraq and push down the Sunni tribes. Tehran probably doesn’t mind seeing the Kurds pinned down on a vast front without relief from Baghdad, at least for a while, even though Mosul and Nineveh are much more important strategic goals on both military and economic grounds. With the US refusing to do much business directly with the Kurds except for small arms and training, the Kurdish line will remain static for a long time to come, and that benefits Iran more than anyone else.
The US is also not doing much business with Baghdad, as it turns out. Haider al-Abadi came to the US expecting to get a big infusion of cash and munitions, but the White House offered a surprisingly paltry $200 million package instead:
The Obama administration said Tuesday that it will provide Iraq with $200 million in humanitarian assistance, an amount that fell far short of the aid sought by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi during his visit here this week.
President Obama made the offer during an Oval Office meeting with Abadi, saying the funds would help hundreds of thousands if not millions of Iraqis displaced during the fighting against forces from the Islamic State that have captured much of the country.
The Iraqi government has asked the United States to provide heavy weapons, like Apache helicopters, drones and F-16 jet fighters, but when asked by reporters after the meeting Obama would only say that “we are discussing security arrangements.” …
Iraq is also struggling on the financial front from what an International Monetary Fund team in December called the “double shock” of the costs of waging war on the Islamic State and the sharp decline in oil prices. Even though oil production has been climbing, the government — which relies heavily on oil revenues — expects to run a large budget deficit.
In other words, Iraq doesn’t have the resources for a major assault on Anbar, it doesn’t have the kind of forces needed, and it’s avoiding a winnable fight in the north. Small wonder that the Obama administration isn’t interested in making a large investment in Abadi, but it still leaves the only national army on the ground against ISIS with little hope of holding them off. If we’re not going to invest in Abadi, why not start investing directly in the Kurds?