Following a break in operations during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, fighters of the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL) resumed their offensive. Islamic State (IS) fighters began with a feint into Lebanon and continued with concerted efforts to capture towns in northwestern Iraq. Since the end of Ramadan, IS fighters captured the Mosul dam, the cities of Tal Afar and Sinjar, and began shelling Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. On Thursday night, 7 August 2014, U. S. President Barack Obama authorized air drops of food and water to refugees fleeing the fighting and airstrikes against IS formations and artillery in northwestern Iraq. Reports in the UK Guardian describe limited US airstrikes as “less than a concerted air campaign,” and Reuters’ photos show US and UK aircraft dropping supplies to the refugees.
If IS leaders perceive a weak US military response, IS fighters will resume their drive for Baghdad. First, IS will press their attack into Erbil to defeat Kurdish security forces, called Peshmerga, who have offered the strongest resistance to the IS advance in Iraq. If IS defeats the Peshmerga, IS will next cut off water, electricity, and trade into Baghdad, increasing unrest in that city and its security forces. Security forces in Baghdad could be hard pressed to hold off an IS attack, especially an attack preceded by loss of water, electricity. Unless the West rearms and resupplies the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) who remain loyal to their respective governments, the IS fighters will take Erbil and subsequently Baghdad.
A strong demonstration of Western resolve, with US airstrikes and US/UK relief to refugees, will weaken the IS. Most importantly, resupplying and rearming the Peshmerga and ISF would likely all them to contain IS eastern expansion for rest of the summer fighting season. If the US demonstrates that it stands by the Kurds and the Iraqi Government, then regional fence-sitters in the Middle East (such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) will be reassured. Allies and partners in other regions, including the Pacific (S. Korea, Japan and Taiwan), and south Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India) will also be reassured. Strategic rivals, including Russia and China, may also take note and slow their own sabre rattling.
A demonstration that US cannot be counted on to support the interest of its friends and partners will push the Middle Eastern fence-sitters more toward Russia. It will also call into question US support for allies and partners in the Pacific and south Asia. Strategic rivals, Russia and China, would be correspondingly emboldened in their own respective efforts in Europe and the Pacific.
US airstrikes in support of Kurdish forces, against IS formations are the right action at the right time. The Pentagon has resupplied and rearmed the Peshmerga, with small arms and small arms ammunition. Even the Vatican has endorsed military intervention to stop IS sectarian violence. The Kurds have maintained a fairly pluralistic society in their territories: different cultures, ethnicities and religions live and work together with low crime and low violence. The Kurds represent exactly the kind of modern, sane society IS totally opposes. IS are fighting like barbarians and persecuting Christians, Yezidi and even Shia Muslims. The world should support the Kurds because they are the good guys here.
During his second term as Iraqi Prime Minister, Maliki practiced nepotism in the Security Forces rather than promoting the most competent and respected leaders. Maliki also pursued a wider sectarian agenda throughout government and society that alienated Kurdish and Sunni Arab minorities in the northern and western portions of Iraq. Many of the Iraqi Army formations that deserted in the initial IS offensive into Iraq were made of up Sunni Arabs, doubly alienated by both Maliki’s nepotism and his sectarian agenda. Following the certification of the results of the recent Parliamentary election in Iraq, the President of Iraq bypassed Maliki on August 11, calling on the Deputy Speaker of Parliament to form a government. Maliki previously deployed special security forces personally loyal to him in Baghdad in an effort to retain power. But last week Maliki stepped aside. We will see if the new Prime Minister can form a unity government.
The Islamic State is led by a man who calls himself al Baghdadi. He was imprisoned for several years along with his second-in-command, called al Golani, in the U.S. detention facility Camp Bucca, southeast of Basrah city. Shortly after al Baghdadi gained freedom from U.S. custody, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) appeared in the vicinity of Mosul. Beginning in 2009, ISI conducted propaganda campaigns against the US and the Government of Iraq, and attacks against civilian and military targets. During the Syrian civil war, IS fighters gained experience against Syrian government forces. In the summer of 2014, IS began its offensive from Syria into Iraq.
During the IS advance into Iraq before Ramadan 2014, Iraqi Army formations in northern Iraq largely deserted. IS killed many of the Iraqi Army and seized Humvees, automatic rifles, and other weapons the US provided the Iraqi Army before US withdrawal in 2011. While the desertion of these Iraq Army units could be due to simple cowardice in the face of fierce IS fighters, it is more likely that the deserters felt little loyalty to Maliki’s government in Baghdad. Before Ramadan, IS advanced toward Bagdad, seizing Fallujah, and attacking Habbaniya and Ramadi. Reuters reports indicated the IS were threatening the water supplies and bridges into Baghdad. Only the Peshmerga fought IS to a standstill, while their supplies held out. The Kurds regained control of the oil city of Kirkuk and provided the only steady resistance to the IS offensive in Iraq, diverting them from their advance on Baghdad.
The Kurdish semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq maintained a measure of civility, dignity and tranquillity throughout the entirety of Operation Iraqi Freedom and into the present. The Kurds have apparently forgiven the US for letting Saddam repeatedly attack them after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The US rebuilt its relationship with the Kurds by several actions. The US created a No Fly Zone over Kurdish territory in northern Iraq through the 1990s, and kept Saddam’s ground forces out as well. More recently the US convinced the Government of Iraq to recognize the Kurdistan Regional Government as an official semi-autonomous region. The Kurds allowed U. S. convoys to flow freely through their territory from the 2003 invasion, until US Forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011. The Kurds also had industry, tourism and relative prosperity until IS started attacking Kurdish towns and created a refugee crisis by forcing 10,000s of Christians and Yezidi into Kurdish territory. Without Western resupply, the Peshmerga may culminate and be defeated in the face well-armed, well-financed and brutal IS fighters, and the Kurds may lose control over their region.
In each newly conquered town, the IS fighters have followed a pattern of imposing Sharia law and giving an ultimatum to Christians and Yezidi to convert or die. Many Christians and Yezidi have fled from eastern Syria and northern Iraq into the Kurdish region. Of those who did not flee, hundreds of males have been beheaded by IS and many females have been kidnapped as salves (in both cases including adults, teens and pre-teens). Christian and Jewish historical sites also have been defaced in IS controlled areas. IS fighters have also killed many Shia Muslims. The Shia Muslims in southeastern Iraq and Iran fear the possible destruction of their shrines south of Baghdad and their own murder at the hands of IS fighters who tolerate only their version of Sunni Islam.
Resources will also play a role in the coming months. Holding the Mosul dam puts IS in control of much of the water and electricity supplies in northwestern Iraq. They could shut of water and power to any Christian, Yezidi or Shia that remain. They could breach the dam and unleash a 50 to 65 foot wall of water down the Tigris river valley, which would destroy buildings, crops and drown people and cattle alike. The IS also holds some oil fields in eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. The lack of a spike in oil prices suggests that production from these fields has not significantly decreased. These oil fields could continue to provide revenues to the IS, or the IS could shut the oil fields off in an effort to hurt the West. However, as oil is globally traded commodity, shutting off IS oil fields would surely spike the price, helping those oil producers in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions who currently fear IS.
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