ISIS Forging Ahead as Iraq's Allies Dither

As the U.S. and other major powers dicker over what to do, ISIS fighters are gaining more and more ground.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Volunteers of the newly formed "Peace Brigades" participate in a parade in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, June 21, 2014.
Volunteers of the newly formed "Peace Brigades" participate in a parade in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, June 21, 2014.Credit: AP
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

On a searing hot June day in Baghdad, I set out to interview disgruntled Iraqi soldiers and police officers. Not only did they find themselves out of a job, but they’d been told to turn in all weapons, as were civilians, in a mass weapons collection program, announced by U.S. and British forces.

Protesting officers, taking scant shade under a tree across from the former defense ministry, were furious and confused. But the Bush and Blair administrations promised that this was all part of the plan, and following a program of what they called “de-Baathification,” a competent Iraqi army would be rebuilt. All in good time, they said.

Eleven years on, that competent Iraqi army of Washington’s dreams has proved elusive. And Baathists are hardly the problem, unless one simply calls them "disgruntled Sunnis." Five years ago, Sunni tribal groups had been convinced that it was in their interest to rebuff Al-Qaida in Iraq and the blood-soaked insurgency campaign that became their calling card. Over time, Sunnis have grown doubtful that they have a fair stake in an Iraq run by the Shi'ites-first sectarianism of Nuri al-Maliki. Now, some 14 Sunni groups formerly loyal to secular Saddam have aligned themselves with ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, according to Iraqi writer Omar al-Jaffal.

In Baghdad on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that America’s support for Iraq “will be intense and sustained if Iraq's leaders take the necessary steps to bring the country together.” In other words, major military assistance is conditional on Iraq making political changes, and according to some reports, to al-Maliki agreeing to step down. Though clearly al-Maliki has been a disappointment on many fronts, this is perhaps a little bit like asking someone to do renovations while the house is on fire.

Indeed, events in Iraq are developing so rapidly that asking for the government in Baghdad to reinvent itself in a new political constellation seems like a recipe for giving ISIS more time to cement their hold and snatch up yet more. While the Obama team vacillates, ISIS on Tuesday managed to gain full control over Baiji, Iraq’s main oil refinery south of Mosul. The Sunni cross-border militia had been struggling for two weeks against government forces there, who promised to defend it with their lives.

Apparently, however, morale among Iraq government troops is low, despite being a largely Shi'ite force under an elected Shi'ite premier. More troublingly, years (and billions of dollars) of U.S. training aimed at preparing the Iraqi military to stand up and secure the country are somehow failing almost too miserably to acknowledge. And while it’s fair enough for a former U.S. general, David Petraeus, to say that America can’t “be the air force for Shia militias or a Shia-on-Sunni Arab fight,” one wonders how America left Iraq in December 2011 with such poor air capacity of its own.

For starters, the Obama administration has ordered up to 300 military advisors back to Iraq – Navy SEALs and Army Rangers, according to various reports. It’s possible that they will begin coordinating air strikes on ISIS targets, which al-Maliki has been requesting for more than a month. Drone strikes, which the U.S. has favored in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are also possible, but they’re a kind of shortcut: They are easily ordered in areas where there are no U.S. “boots on the ground” and tend to cause more collateral damage – i.e. innocent human lives lost.

These 300 advisors will be “sitting in offices, not out on the front lines,” retired Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant told CNN. But Michael O’Hanlon, the director of research for the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, tells Haaretz that “to be effective, at least for most purposes, one needs at least special operations teams on the ground to help call in air strikes.” Whether some of the 300 on their way to Iraq will fulfill that role is yet unclear.

O’Hanlon, who specializes in U.S. defense strategy, the use of military force and American foreign policy, says that Obama needs “to be careful about keeping an integrated, cogent strategy for the ongoing war on terror, since he doesn’t seem to have one at the moment.” In recognition that the Iraqi government is part of the problem, and that Obama was elected in part to extricate America from Iraq, it stands to reason that Obama isn’t keen to rush back in with guns blazing. But as the changes Obama wants “can’t be done by force,” O’Hanlon argues, American will have to take the slow route to intervention: “We’ll have to persuade them—or simply limit our engagement for now.”

Israel, for its part, is not sure whether to root for the Kurds who so badly want to emerge from the mayhem with independence – or at least an implementation of a federal regional system the Iraqi constitution promised but did not deliver – or whether to stand by American, Iranian and Saudi interests in keeping Iraq intact. Probably the latter, as the price of Iraq breaking up is unknown, and given ISIS’ ideology, far more menacing. But as the major powers dither over what to do and which fire to put out first, ISIS is managing to erase the borders before our eyes.

On Sunday, ISIS militants captured Iraq’s main border crossing with Jordan, a development that is deeply worrying not just in Amman and Riyadh, but across the Middle East. The capture of the Turabil crossing with Jordan followed the fall of three more towns in western Iraq’s Anbar province. This string of conquests puts hundreds of miles of territory into the hands of ISIS, essentially controlling Iraq’s entire Western frontier. Were Iraq a game of chess, ISIS would be on a winning streak and positioning its pieces ever closer to Baghdad.

A week from Tuesday, on July 1, al-Maliki promises to present a new government that will fulfill the power-sharing prescriptions it has been given by the Obama administration, or at least show how he intends to. But with ISIS fighters feeling themselves to be on fire in the triumphalist sense of the word, it’s worrying to think how much more ground they could gain in a week while cabinet chairs are being reshuffled in Baghdad. But, all in good time.

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