March 4, 2015

The battle for Tikrit - a harbinger of things to come?

Iraqi artillery shelling ISIS positions (REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani)

Recent news reports claim that "Iraqi forces" have entered portions of the city and environs of Tikrit and are in the process of clearing the city - the Iraqis say they will be in full control in a few days. Tikrit has been occupied by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since the organization's fighters swept out of Syria, seized Mosul and began a march down the Tigris River valley on the way to Baghdad.

Tikrit is well-known as the home city of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Husayn - a mostly Sunni city about 80 miles north of Baghdad. It is also the location of a major air base and military training center, as well as many of the few oilfields in the Sunni area of Iraq. Retaking the city with a population of about 275,000 people is an important test of the reconstituted Iraqi army and security forces.

This will be the third major attempt (some analysts claim that this might actually be the sixth) to recapture the city from ISIS since its fall in 2014 - the earlier attempts were dismal failures as the Iraqi army was just not up to the task. To be fair, they were thrown into the fray much too soon after the army's collapse in Mosul. ISIS fighters were much more committed and fought the attackers to a standstill each time.

I believe the current military operation - named "Here I am, Messenger of God" - to retake Tikrit is a precursor, a rehearsal of sorts, for the impending and absolutely necessary campaign to eject ISIS forces from Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Not only is Mosul a huge city of two million people, it is a major economic and psychological symbol for both ISIS and the Iraqi government. Reasserting Iraqi governmental control over Mosul is essential to a national recovery from the specter of the impotence of the government in Baghdad and the abject failure of the Iraqi armed forces.

The current assault on Tikrit may be different than previous attempts, and have a better chance of success. The primary reason is not comforting, but it cannot be ignored - it is the deep involvement of the Iranians on a variety of levels.

The "Iraqi forces" that are engaged in the assault on Tikrit are in reality a mix of Iraqi army forces, Iraqi Shi'a militias sponsored by Iran, supported by a small number of members of the capable Qods Force, the special operations arm of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The commander of the Qods Force, Major General Qasim Soleimani, is himself on the scene and providing "support" - according to the Iraqi media.

General Soleimani has years of experience fighting in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. It is commonly accepted that he is actually giving the orders, albeit via an Iraqi commander, as he has in previous battles in Iraq against ISIS involving the Qods Force and Iraqi Shi'a militias. One indication that the Iranians are involved in this planning and execution of this battle is the unique tactic of using armored bulldozers to build berms to protect advancing forces every evening - classic Iranian military doctrine.

According to U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, fully two-thirds of the force seeking to retake Tikrit are Iranian-based Shi'ite militia fighters, outnumbering by twice the number of Iraqi army troops. They are supported by airpower - not from the U.S.-led coalition, but what the Iraqi media calls "Iraqi jets." While this is technically correct, it is misleading.

In July of 2014, Iran gave the Iraqi Air Force seven Sukhoi Su-25 (NATO: FROGFOOT) ground attack fighter aircraft. Despite the claim that they were delivered from Russia (complete with the theatrics of an aerial delivery of some antiquated unserviceable aircraft), that fiction was quickly and easily disproved. The flag on the tail may now be Iraqi, but the aircraft - and pilots - are Iranian. (See my earlier article, Is Iran delivering fighter aircraft to the Iraqi Air Force?)

The Iraqis have marshaled an estimated 30,000 troops to retake Tikrit. The number of ISIS fighters defending Tikrit is estimated to be about 13,000 - although accurate numbers are difficult to obtain. While that sounds like a lot of troops to attack the city, conventional wisdom is that, all things being equal, the attacking force should be three times the number of the defenders. That can be mitigated with force multipliers, such as airpower, artillery, intelligence and surveillance capabilities, etc. It remains to be seen if the operation to retake Tikrit will be successful. If it is, it will give the Iraqi army a much-need boost in confidence.

We cannot overlook the increasing level of Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs, as we see in this major military operation. I must admit to being surprised at General Dempsey's reaction, saying, "If it is a path that ties [Iraq and Iran] more closely together economically or even politically, as long as the Iraqi government remains committed to inclusivity of all the various groups inside the country, then I think Iranian influence will be positive." Perhaps this conciliatory message - uncharacteristic of the general - is part of the Administration's attempt to move forward on a the Iranian nuclear deal. I hope not.

If this operation is successful, it may become the blueprint for the expected attempt to retake Mosul later this year. That will be a much larger, complicated operation. It is doubtful that the Iraqis - even with Iranian assistance - will be able to do this without American/coalition force multipliers. They would be foolish to try, despite the bravado of some of the Shi'a militia commanders who claim they neither want nor need American assistance.

ISIS is a formidable foe, and they have had over eight months to construct their defenses in Tikrit and Mosul. It the Iraqi forces cannot retake Tikrit, if they fail again this time, the outlook for a successful attack on Mosul anytime soon is grim.