When a small force of around 800 fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria overran the city of Mosul last week, the worst-case scenario for the Iraqi government appeared to be coming true.
Half the country is now in the hands of extremists too extreme for even Al Qaida. What would happen to Baghdad? Would it fall? But the nature of sectarian war means that stalemate is the most likely option.
It didn’t appear this way mid-last week. On June 10, two Iraqi divisions of around 30,000 soldiers evaporated in the face of a lightning advance by more experienced and well-armed ISIS forces. Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit also fell to ISIS and its Sunni militia allies.
But this had the effect of galvanizing Shias into volunteering by the thousands into ad-hoc militias to defend Baghdad. Bolstered by these forces, the Iraqi government appears to have retaken several towns north of the capital.
The United States and Iran are somewhat awkwardly coming together to rescue the Iraqi government. The Quds Force—the expeditionary wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps—is on the ground with its veteran commander, Qassem Suleimani.
This is while the American carrier USS George H.W. Bush, its air wing, the cruiser USS Philippine Sea and destroyer USS Truxton are heading into the Persian Gulf. Pres. Barack Obama is considering the possibility of air strikes.
But it’s the Shia militias backed by Iranian advisers who are likely the biggest obstacle in the way of further gains by ISIS. The Quds Force is not a front-line unit, but functions as a special operations group whose presence and leadership improves indigenous forces on the battlefield.
“The most likely outcome of that fighting will be a vicious stalemate at or north of Baghdad, basically along Iraq’s ethno-sectarian divide,” the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack wrote. “That is also not surprising because it conforms to the pattern of many similar intercommunal civil wars.”
To understand why, it’s worth remembering the Shia militias have something to fight for.
“While it is understandable, even predictable, that Shia troops would not fight and die for Sunni cities, many are likely to find their courage when they are defending their homes and families in Baghdad and the other Shia-dominated cities of the south,” Pollack wrote.
Think about this in terms of tactics. Militias organized along ethnic lines are really good at defending territory. But on the other hand, they’re pretty crummy when it comes to taking territory.
ISIS operates on both sides of the disintegrating Iraq-Syria border and includes a buffet of die-hard jihadists from around the world. But it would be a misnomer to describe ISIS as purely foreign.
Many of ISIS’s fighters are Iraqis, and they are augmented even more by local Sunni allies. So while the heavily Sunni parts of western Mosul fell quickly, it’s a different matter taking a city like Baghdad that’s more than three times the size and—by some accounts—nearly 80 percent Shia.
On the flip side, it’ll be difficult for the Shia militias and heavily Shia Iraqi army troops to push ISIS out of the territory it already has.
Pollack is on to something here—and to understand it, think about traveling in the United States. Drive from one end of the country to other, and you can expect things to be fairly predictable. You can probably even spend your weary nights in the same hotel chain the entire way. But in a country divided along rigid sectarian and ethnic lines, you take a lot of risks when navigating outside your own neighborhood.
The local militia knows its hood inside and out, and losing it possibly means the execution of most of your friends and family. Anyone trying to organize these disparate groups into a cohesive offensive force runs up against the dilemma of asking people to leave their homes undefended while the young men are away fighting.
The Iraqi government and the Shia militias are about to run into this problem. Just 50 miles to the west of Baghdad is the city of Fallujah, where a coalition of Sunni tribes and ISIS militants have held sway since January. There appears to be sporadic fighting in villages near the city, but no offensive has emerged there on the scale which seized Mosul in the north.
“It may be that Sunni militant forces in Anbar were so badly beaten up in the fighting with the ISF around Fallujah and Ramadi that they are not capable of mounting such an attack. Alternatively, they may be preparing to do precisely that.”
If they do, that would put more pressure on Baghdad—this time from a new direction. Or what happened in Fallujah—a stalemate—was just a precursor for the north. That means an Iraq that’s balkanized into a series of ethnic states, none of them able to push hard enough to unite the whole.
We’ve also seen what happens with stalemates. They go on for years, and hundreds of thousands of people can die.
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