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Why has the Iraqi Offensive against ISIS Stalled?

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • March 24, 2015

    With much fanfare the Iraqi government led by Haider al-Abadi announced some time ago that a military offensive had begun to ‘take back’ from the ISIS the important city of Tikrit; the hometown of the ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and situated in the Sunni heartland. It was fondly hoped that re-establishing control over Tikrit would open the way to Mosul – the capture of which would be the final nail in the coffin of the dreaded ISIS. But weeks have gone by and there is no news yet that Tikrit has been fully occupied or that ISIS fighters have finally been ousted from that city. It is reported that the Iraqi offensive has stalled just outside Tikrit. What seems to be going on?

    It is a matter of record that Iraqi government troops involved in the offensive are relatively small in number and that the bulk of the fighting force is made up of Shiite militias, fully supported by the Iranians with an Iranian general, Qassem Suliemani, ostensibly in charge of the operations. The United States, although supportive of the effort, has reported that it has not provided air support for this offensive ostensibly because ‘no one asked them for it.’ The US denies that there is ‘co-ordination’ with the Iranians, but does admit that ‘messages’ are often exchanged through the auspices of the Iraqi government. It does seem strange that while US authorities have no hesitation in conducting bombing raids against the ISIS unilaterally (some 2500 have been conducted so far) and are ever eager to help the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters defend themselves against ISIS depredations, they seem to be unusually reluctant to use air power to help the Iraqi authorities and their Iranian allies in the conduct of this particular offensive. The reasons for US reluctance to engage the ISIS in Tikrit obviously lie elsewhere.

    There are two particularly vicious conflicts and a delicately poised negotiation that are simultaneously in progress in this area. The two conflicts are: the sectarian strife between the Sunni and Shiite; and the proxy war between the Shiite Iranians and the Sunni Saudis for regional dominance. The third aspect is the crucial talks between the Iranians and the US-led P-5+1, designed to limit Iranian nuclear ambitions. These negotiations have now reached a decisive stage.

    It is obvious that the US does not wish to take sides in any of these conflicts. No matter how much it detests the ISIS, the US does not wish to put a spanner in the delicately balanced negotiations with Iran. A victory in Tikrit under the leadership of an Iranian general would certainly embolden Iranian negotiators. It would be galling indeed for the US to witness the fall of Tikrit to an Iraqi government force led by an Iranian general when its own Iraqi trained army simply vanished into thin air at the first whiff of gunshot by the ISIS. Nor does the US want to be seen as being partial to the Shiites because its long standing allies in the region are mostly Sunni-led governments, particularly Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf Monarchies. Most Sunni governments and allies of the US may not approve of the activities and may even detest some of the extreme actions of the ISIS, but it remains a fact that their hatred for the Shiites overshadows almost everything else. Recently, the Human Rights Watch has reported that Iraqi Shiite militias, while battling for the control of Tikrit, have been burning Sunni homes and have completely destroyed at least two Sunni villages near Amerli and displaced thousands of Sunnis in revenge attacks for the massacre of Shiite Iraqi army soldiers from Camp Spiecher by the ISIS in June 2014.1.

    Given this, how can Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia stand aside in muted silence and witness the ethnic cleansing of Sunni civilians by the Shiite militias near Tikrit [Amerli] as reported by the Human Rights Watch, and not urge the US to rein in the Shiite-led Iraqi government? It would be disastrous for US policy and image in the Arab World if the perception were to grow that America is in league with the Shiites in the sectarian conflict now raging over most parts of the Middle East. The US is also scrambling hard to soften the blow to the Saudis and the Gulf Monarchies should the nuclear deal with Iran come to a satisfactory fruition in the very near future.

    A similar story is unfolding in Yemen. After the Shiite Houthis ousted the government forces of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour from the northern capital of Sanaa, they took control of large parts of western Yemen. Recently, they have also captured the important city of Taiz. The ouster of the forces of President Mansour, a US ally, has led to their near disintegration and the remnants are now largely confined to Aden. This has once again highlighted the very acute US dilemma. After all, the Houthis are the sworn enemies of not only the remaining al-Qaeda elements in Yemen but are even more strenuously opposed to the ISIS. But the Houthis, being Shiites, are naturally anathema to the Saudis. Even worse is the fact that the Sunni tribes who provide the bulk of the fighters against the Houthis are now turning towards the ISIS for help in their fight for the control of Yemen. The US can only watch the events unfold, but as a matter of abundant caution has withdrawn its special forces stationed in Yemen. No doubt the US will maintain its ‘drone’ surveillance and covert intelligence activities, but there is little else it can do.

    It has often been said that the politics of the Middle East, largely a desert area, resembles the natural topography of the region. The sand dunes of the desert never remain static for long. Here today, gone tomorrow and the rapid change of colours of the desert are a sight to be seen. The sole superpower of the day is discovering that dealing with the men of the desert is after all no easy business.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India