May 18, 2016

Iraq - Goals of the ISIS bombing campaign

Over the past few months, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of bombings in and around Baghdad - it has become almost a daily occurrence. The bombs include improvised explosive devices, car bombs and suicide vests.

As was to be expected, the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the all of the bombings. The attacks have killed over 200 hundred Iraqis, virtually all of them Shi'a Arabs - avowed enemies of the Sunni extremists of ISIS.

The bombing campaign represents a shift in tactics for the group and follows a series of battlefield losses for ISIS. As the Iraqi Security Forces (the catch-all term for the Army, national police, special units and Shi'a militias) regroup after dismal showings following the collapse of the units defending Mosul in 2014, they are beginning to retake territory from ISIS.

Much of that success is due to increased effectiveness of U.S.-led coalition airpower and effective targeting of ISIS leaders and facilities based on more accurate intelligence. This reflects the increased presence of American troops on the ground and development of better intelligence sources.

As the more effective military operations take their toll on ISIS, the group has fallen back, giving up territory in al-Anbar province and the Euphrates River valley. Their supply and communications lines used to move forces and resources between Iraq and Syria have been cut.

At the same time, Iraqi forces - this time with not only American airpower, but direct fire support from U.S. Marine field artillery and rocket launcher systems - have pushed north up the Tigris River valley. These forces are shaping the battlefield for the inevitable assault to re-assert Iraqi government control over Mosul and the northern parts of the country now occupied by ISIS.

According to U.S. officials, ISIS is no longer attempting to seize more territory in Iraq, or Syria for that matter. I agree with that assessment - the group is consolidating its defense of Mosul and limiting its offensive operations to re-establishing its lines of communications. This, however, is a losing strategy - they must find a way to stop the Iraqi forces' momentum at a time when U.S. and coalition support to the Iraqis is on the rise.

After almost two years, the now-constant air strikes - finally, the increased operations tempo I have been calling for - are taking a toll. Unless ISIS changes its strategy, it is only a matter of time before the resources available to the Iraqi government isolates and destroys it.

Hence, ISIS's renewed relentless bombing campaign. The number of attacks and the breadth of the areas being struck reminds us that the organization is still capable of inflicting large numbers of casualties, especially against relatively undefended targets. The targets ISIS has selected for this campaign certainly meet that description - markets, sporting event venues and any areas where large numbers of people gather.

ISIS has several goals in this bombing campaign. The ultimate goal, of course, it to create so much mayhem and resulting public outcry against the government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi that the Iraqis reassess their military operations aimed at retaking Mosul. Taking a page from the basic guerrilla handbook, they are attempting to create "significant emotional events" - events that so traumatize the body politic that the people will demand the government change its tactics.

It has a small change of success, depending on how effective the bombing campaign becomes. The Iraqi people - more accurately, the Shi'a population of Baghdad and its environs who are the focus of the bombings - are already criticizing the government's seeming impotence to stop the attacks, and demanding increased security measures to protect them.

The government is vulnerable to this tactic, and ISIS is smart to exploit this vulnerability, The Iraqi government has finite resources in the security forces. These forces are spread thin trying to fight ISIS in the Euphrates valley and moving up the Tigris valley while at the same time providing security in the capital. The Shi'a population in and around Baghdad is more concerned with its own security than the eventual liberation of the Sunni areas around Mosul.

ISIS has forced the Iraqi government into a situation in which it has two choices: continue the military operations against ISIS and risk alienating the Shi'a population - its political power base in Baghdad, or pull forces back from the various combat fronts to provide better security in the capital, which in essence cedes territory to the terrorist group. Unfortunately, the Iraqis cannot do both.