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Hussein Ibish

What's at stake in Tikrit?

Can an unlikely coalition defeat ISIS and create a new model?

Iraqi fighters of the government-controlled Popular Mobilization units flash the sign of victory as they take part in a military operation to take control of Tikrit, 160 kms north of Baghdad, from jihadists from ISIS on 11 March 2015. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

The unfolding battle over the strategically and symbolically crucial Iraqi city of Tikrit, most famous as the birthplace of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, should provide some tentative answers to a number of key questions regarding the future of Iraq and the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).This week, a coalition of Iraqi government forces, Shiite militias, and reportedly even some members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, entered the city in a major effort to oust ISIS forces. They have been joined by an unspecified number of local Sunni tribesmen in an unusual and uneasy alliance against ISIS—but one that makes it a potential model for future offensives. If, that is, the alliance can hold.

This is at least the third or fourth major effort to drive ISIS terrorists out of the city since they seized it in June of 2014. All previous attempts have been disastrous, and profoundly politically embarrassing and damaging, failures for Baghdad. But the current campaign looks much more serious, and consequently its outcome should help to begin to clarify several crucial issues.

First, what are the relative strengths of ISIS and pro-Iraqi government forces?

There's no question that in the past efforts to rid Tikrit of IS, Iraqi troops were ill-prepared and simply not ready for the fight. And, again, some question whether the current initiative is also premature. But at the very least Iraqi forces ought to be in a position to perform much better than they have in the past. This is a real test for them, and one they absolutely cannot afford to fail. If the Iraqi troops do fail, or even struggle enormously, hopes that they can be developed into a potent and effective fighting force will be greatly undermined. Obviously, the most crucial question will be the ability of the alliance with Sunni fighters to survive well into the period after ISIS is ousted from the area.

Another important indicator will be the performance of ISIS fighters. Recent reports suggest that the organization has been fraying at several registers. They are allegedly short of money. Morale is suggested to be on the decline. Internal tensions are reportedly increasing. Whether, or to what extent, any of that is true, and, more importantly, whether it has any impact on battlefield performance, is about to be significantly tested.

If ISIS terrorists can subject attacking Iraqi forces to the kind of sustained resistance that confronted Kurdish fighters in the northern Syrian town of Kobane, it will strongly suggest that ISIS's major strength is indeed its fanaticism. That would raise real question marks about the potential of ousting the extremists from larger Iraqi Sunni cities, Mosul in particular.

Indeed, the battle for Tikrit is almost universally acknowledged to be a dress rehearsal for the forthcoming struggle over Mosul. If ISIS can drag the offensive forces into an urban quagmire, or ensure that the campaign is in some way or another decidedly protracted, painful and bloody, confidence and enthusiasm about an offensive to retake Mosul—about which there are already significant public disputes—will be further eroded.

Second, what is the role of extremist Iraqi Shiite militias?

 

Many disturbing reports suggest that among the Iraqi forces is a large contingent of extremist Shiite militia members, particularly from the notorious Badr Brigade. These and other Iraqi Shiite militia forces have conducted a number of horrifying massacres of unarmed Sunni villagers in recent weeks. If they play a significant role in the current offensive, and particularly if the Sunni participation on the Iraqi government side is limited or nominal (the relative strength of such forces is the subject of competing rumors at present), it's going to be difficult for the local Sunni Arab population in Tikrit not to regard the operation as more of a threat than a liberation. Again, the aftermath following the ouster of ISIS—assuming that it can be dispatched, that is—would be crucial in shaping these perceptions.

Indeed, some scenarios could potentially allow ISIS to yet again falsely pose as the champions and protectors of the local Sunni population against vicious sectarian rivals. Even if ISIS doesn't succeed in making that case, and Tikrit falls to these pro-Baghdad forces, if they include a heavy presence of extremist Shiite militias, it may well prove difficult to prevent the aftermath of the liberation of the city from ISIS devolving into a series of confessional clashes.

Third, what is the role of Iran?

 

No one really disputes that Revolutionary Guards are present in Iraq and participating in the current offensive. Major General Qassem Soleimani, a senior Quds Force commander and, in effect, the coordinator of Iran's major armed proxies outside of its borders, is also apparently not only in the area but also almost certainly giving orders. The question is not so much whether he is involved, but to what extent he is in control. Not only are the aforementioned pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militia fighters more likely to defer to his instructions, or his subordinates', than anybody else's, as military analyst Rick Francona has pointed out, when it comes to the airpower involved in this offensive: "The flag on the tail may now be Iraqi, but the aircraft—and pilots—are Iranian."

American Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says he's "very concerned" at the heavy representation of not only Shiite militias, but also Iranian fighters, in the battle for Tikrit. Gen. Martin Dempsey went further, saying that “…if what follows the Tikrit operation is not that, if there’s no reconstruction that follows it, if there’s no inclusivity that follows it, if there’s the movement of populations out of their homeland that follows it, then I think we’ve got a challenge in the campaign.” But Dempsey has also said that, under the right circumstances, an increasing Iranian role in Iraq "may be positive."

 

Fourth, what is the role of the United States?

 

US allies in the region, particularly Arab Gulf states, warn that current American policies seem torn between two competing and incompatible impulses.

 

On the one hand, there is a recognition that, at heart, Iran's interests are fundamentally inimical to those of the United States and its allies. This understanding recognizes that Iran is a hegemonic power using sectarian tensions, extremist proxies, the cultivation of chaos, and the promotion of terrorism to advance its interests.

 

On the other hand lies the desire within the Obama administration to develop a rapprochement with Iran to further a number of goals. Most obvious is the question of resolving disputes over Iran's nuclear program. But it also extends to a potentially broader new Washington-Tehran understanding on issues such as Gulf security, especially regarding petroleum and securing the Straits of Hormuz. In theory, a new relationship could even potentially extend to the United States and Iran trying to establish a new Sunni-Shiite balance of power in the region that would be the basis for political resolutions of the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere.

 

Even if a nuclear agreement were reached, it's extremely unlikely that a broader rapprochement involving a new balance of power in the region, recognizing new and expanded Iranian spheres of influence and hegemony, would follow. But the fear among traditional American allies in the region is that merely the pursuit of this quixotic fantasy is already causing the United States to give Iran far too much leeway in Iraq and is the primary explanation for the American refusal to take a stronger stance insisting on regime change in Damascus.

 

Yet American deference to Iran regarding aspects of Iraq and Syria isn't only explicable in terms of the fantasy of a broad new understanding between Washington and Tehran. In some cases at least, it could be attributed simply to a willingness on the part of the Obama administration to allow others to "lead from the front" as it pursues its hyper-cautious and risk-averse foreign policy.

 

As The New York Times recently noted, the lack of options and resources being committed to the campaign by the Obama administration has left the United States increasingly reliant on Iran and its allies for success in Iraq against ISIS. Under such circumstances, there might be no need for ISIS's much-ballyhooed propaganda machine. The mere identity, and possibly the behavior, of the forces taking the field against it will be more than sufficient to do its recruiting for it. Yet to move beyond this equation would require the commitment of significant levels of resources, firepower, credibility and even manpower, apparently beyond anything this administration is presently willing to contemplate.

 

The new offensive in Tikrit is actually a very good case in point. The United States is not providing air cover, because it was not consulted about, and is not participating in, the offensive. If it fails, that would be a huge boon to ISIS, and clearly a blow to American interests. But if it succeeds in removing ISIS from the city, no matter what follows, the United States might be tempted to view the affair as essentially successful, and even potentially a model to be at least further winked and nodded at in the future. Unless there is a heartening containment of sectarian tensions in Tikrit in the aftermath of a liberation from ISIS, it can hardly be such a model.

 

When the dust settles in Tikrit, we ought to have a much clearer picture of all of these factors. It will tell us much about what to expect, and what not to expect, in the battle against ISIS in the coming months.

 

Hussein Ibish is a columnist at NOW and The National (UAE). He is also a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. He tweets @Ibishblog

 

Iraqi fighters of the government-controlled Popular Mobilization units flash the sign of victory as they take part in a military operation to take control of Tikrit, 160 kms north of Baghdad, from jihadists from ISIS on 11 March 2015. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

If the Iraqi troops do fail, or even struggle enormously, hopes that they can be developed into a potent and effective fighting force will be greatly undermined.”