26.05.2015 Author: Petr Lvov

Damascus and Baghdad May Soon Fall Into the Hands of ISIL

SI48922While analysts were trying to guess who was the weak link in Syria, where renewed opposition forces are preparing a new attack on Damascus, or Iraq, where Islamic State militants have recently captured a strategically important city in the western part of the country some 70 miles from Baghdad, ISIL decided to test its luck in both countries. They have not simply conquered Palmyra in the eastern part of Syria, but on May 22 they managed to establish full control of the entire border area between Syria and Iraq. Today, they control more than 53% of the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.

On May 23 Islamic States militants captured a gas complex near Homs facing no resistance whatsoever. This complex is only 55 miles away from the city of Tartus on the Mediterranean coast which is hosting a Russian naval base and 10 miles from the border with Lebanon. De facto, Syria is now cut in two, which may be the beginning of the final phase of the military operation to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, which will not be carried out by guerrilla unit from the north and the south, controlled by the anti-Syrian coalition of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, but ISIL militants instead. This will mark the end of Alawite rule in Syria, while the opposition created by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will join the ranks of the Islamic States, which will strengthen this organization even more.

Should ISIL units conquer Damascus, then the Islamic State will have all of Syria and a half of Iraq under its direct control, since those Islamists have already captured the entire western part of Iraq, including the towns of Ramadi and Falluja, and now they need to cover 35 miles to reach Baghdad. Shia militia along with regular Iraqi army troops redeployed from the Mosul and Tikrit, despite the initial success of their counter-offensive, which began on May 24, and the air cover provided by the US Air Force, all have thrown down their weapons and fled. Iran deployed additional units from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards corps while regular Iranian army units are arriving in Baghdad. Some of them have already launched a counter-offensive to recapture the largest petroleum refinery in the city of Baiji which is vital for the efficient fuel supply of the Iraqi army. Meanwhile, militants are accumulating forces for an attack on the Iraqi capital. Several groups up to 20 thousand rifles strong are moving eastward from Falluja to open the road to Baghdad. There are reports Baghdad has already been infiltrated by militants pretending to be Sunni refugees from the Al Anbar governorate. There are rumors that soon the Iraqi capital will be assaulted both from outside and from within, as ISIL saboteurs, including those former officers of Saddam’s army will jeopardize any efforts to establish an effective defense perimeter. Should Baghdad fall, Washington has a plan at hand for breaking Iraq into three enclaves: a Shia, Sunni and Kurdish enclave.

The retreat of the army and police units from Ramadi and Falluja was chaotic, tanks and rocket launchers were left behind for the taking. The same pattern was observed when jihadists captured Mosul in June 2014 – the second largest city in Iraq. This is but a reminder that pro-government forces are extremely weak in Iraq. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, its armed forces were completely disbanded, while a new army was to be created in its place. But now it is obvious that in the process of its creation a number of serious mistakes were made. The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 has severely affected the US Army training program. On the other hand former officers of Saddam’s army can be found among the most successful commanders of the Islamic State units.

After the fall of Mosul in June 2014 a so-called people’s army started to form in order to confront the Islamic State which has recruited tens of thousands of people. The core of these forces are well-known Shia militia groups, such as Badr Brigade and Hezbollah, the better part of which are supported by Iran. A month ago these forces managed to beat Sunni jihadists and force ISIL militants out of Tikrit. But then Shia militias were accused of attacks on local Sunnis. Although Shia militia fighters are the closest allies of the Iraqi regular troops, local Sunnis perceive them differently. Even the Sunnis of the Al Anbar governorate that recognize the authority of the government in Baghdad do not want to see Shia militia fighters around as they do not recognize them as liberators from the Islamic State.

Latest military defeats suffered by Iraqi forces in the Al Anbar governorate and the fall of the city of Ramadi raises a lot of questions about the strategy being used to fight off ISIL, since it is not clear whether the central government in Baghdad will be now able o restore the unity of the country. At present the Islamic State cannot be called “just” a terrorist organization, despite its extremely brutal methods and rigid fanaticism. This entity controls an area of two hundred thousand square miles that serves as a home to some 8 million people that pay taxes to this Islamist group. The secret of its success is the combination of terrorist methods and discipline, inherited from the days of Saddam Hussein’s military drills.

A military victory over such an organization depends on the lose military cooperation of Iran and the United States. However, the possible success of such an endeavor is extremely improbable. In addition, American “anti-terrorist partners” – Qatar and Saudi Arabia have shown little interest in waging any form of war against the Islamic State. The only thing they seem to be interested in is the weakening of Iran, soon to be cut off from Syria by those very militants they are supposed to attack. Another possible scenario is the collapse of Iraq, in this case moderate Sunnis will find ways to neutralize the Islamic State without the “aid” of Baghdad.

At the same time it’s Shiites remain the most efficient fighters among government forces, primarily due to their dedication and the competent command staff formed by Iranian advisers. This means that their numbers in the Al Anbar governorate will only increase overtime which will encourage new Sunni-Shiite confrontations. In the context of the recent events the visit by Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan to Baghdad seems logical. Of course, it will be followed by an increase in arms supplies and deployment of even more Iranian troops to “strengthen” the front line. Iranian military personnel due to the extreme complication of the situation may be used to fight Islamists directly.

There’s still hope in Baghdad that it can rely on military assistance from Russia. During his visit to Moscow, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the latter underlined the importance of military cooperation between Iraq and the Russian Federation while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov promised full support to Baghdad and Damascus in the war against Islamists. Before the meeting, Sergey Lavrov made a statement which reads: “We are helping both Iraq and Syria, possibly more effectively than anyone else, by providing weapons to their armies and security forces.”

This visit to Moscow shows the urgent needs of Iraq to get new weapons in the face of an imminent Islamist threat, but also testifies to Russia’s ability to provide weapons to its allies “faster” than Washington does. Baghdad is in no position to wait for months, and Russia is ready to ship small arms in a timely manner before the situation turns from bad to worse. Although this does not mean that Iraq will not need American weapons. But unlike the United States that provides a long list of conditions to apply even more political pressure on Baghdad, Russia is ready to wait for the payment. Recently the White House offered weapons to Sunni insurgents and Kurdish Peshmerga formations without even notifying Baghdad which was a source of major frustration for the central government.

But, judging by the military successes of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the question of the day sounds as following: is it too late to save the regimes in those countries? After all, should Islamists keep the pace they have built, the fate of Damascus and Baghdad will be decided rather quickly. It is no coincidence that Hezbollah has declared on May 25 that Washington has no means to protect the Middle East from ISIL. For regional players there’s no victory to be achieved against the Islamic State without direct military intervention by the United States.

Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”

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