On the Syrian border with Turkey, Islamic State fighters streaming toward the border to engage Kurds defending the city of Kobani are entering a coalition meat grinder.
Overnight, the American-led coalition executed six new airstrikes on ISIS positions around Kobani following an airdrop of weapons and supplies for the town’s Kurdish defenders. While administration officials were wary of declaring that there had been a shift in strategic momentum in Kobani, sources on the ground confirmed last week that ISIS fighters have been pushed back and the city is in less danger of falling to the Islamic State than it was at the beginning of the month.
While coalition allies on the ground are enjoying some successes in northern Syria, however, the situation in Iraq is only getting worse.
In Baghdad, car bombs targeting Shia neighborhoods are a near daily occurrence. Often, car bombings come in the form of simultaneous, coordinated attacks on multiple targets. Last week alone, more than 150 died from car or roadside bombings. Among the many victims are a ranking police official in Anbar province and a prominent Shia minister of parliament.
Last night, a suicide bomber attacked a funeral procession outside of a Shiite mosque killing himself and another 21 mourners.
These attacks have ignited a series of sectarian reprisal killings in which Shia militias, which have taken on the defense of Baghdad alongside the Iraqi Security Forces, take their frustrations out on Sunni civilians. As ISIS fighters advance on Abu Ghraib, which is just a 40 minute drive outside the center of Baghdad, Iraqi sources have begun telling reporters that Sunni civilians are prepared to welcome ISIS as liberators and even join their ranks.
Iraqi Security Forces, meanwhile, are faring no better at stemming the ISIS advance than are their Shia partners. ISF forces launched an assault on the city of Baiji near Iraq’s largest oil refinery over the weekend, but were repulsed when they fell into an ISIS ambush.
“[T]he operation had to be aborted after a military vehicle reportedly exploded as part of an ambush by IS that killed four soldiers,” the BBC reported.
“The attacker surprised our forces as he was driving a military armored vehicle. We thought it was our vehicle,” an Iraqi army official told Reuters.
The situation in Iraq sounds dire, right? Don’t believe your own eyes and ears, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby says. He told the hosts of Morning Joe on Monday that Baghdad’s defenders are doing just fine:
Kirby began by telling his MSNBC interlocutors that coalition forces executed a series of successful airstrikes and supply drops in northern Syria, all of which found their targets. “At least, the vast majority of them did,” Kirby corrected. He was right to do so, as Central Command revealed that at least one supply drop missed its target and was about to fall into ISIS control before coalition forces destroyed it.
“We do not assess that Baghdad is under imminent threat right now,” Kirby continued. “And the Iraqi Security Forces are doing a good job stiffening their defenses around the city.”
Well, that does not exactly comport with reports from the ground. Maybe the Pentagon knows something that reporters covering the conflict and their sources in Iraq do not. That is unlikely, says the well-connected former Gen. Barry McCaffrey.
“The Iraqi armed forces are defunct,” he told MSNBC’s Craig Melvin on Monday. “They’re not doing very well at all.”
The general noted that those ISF who have not fled the battlefield – estimated to be up to a full 25 percent of the entire force – are seen as a worse threat by local Sunnis than ISIS. “They’re viewed as a Shiite oppressive regime by the Sunni population, which is why ISIS is doing so well in the Western part of Iraq,” the former general added.
While it seems clear that ISIS is losing the momentum it once had in Syria, there are no indications that Kirby’s tepid vote of confidence in the coalition’s “indigenous” partners in Iraq is well-founded. This would suggest that Kirby is sugarcoating the situation in Iraq with the political goal of reassuring the public that Barack Obama’s severely limited war in the Middle East is succeeding on all fronts.