MISSION CREEP IN THE MIDDLE EAST
American aircraft went into action against Islamic State positions in Tikrit on March 25 in direct support of a stalled Iraqi offensive. The following day General Lloyd Austin, top commander in the Middle East, told Congress that he would like his forces to protect the Syrian “moderate” rebels who are currently trained and armed by the U.S. Also this week a major new theater was opened in Yemen, where a Sunni Arab coalition started sustained air strikes against Shia rebels with Washington’s explicit support.
The alarming aspect of these new developments is that the U.S. role appears to be entirely reactive and not based on a coherent long-term strategy. The engagement in Tikrit has the obvious short-term objective of countering Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, rather than inflicting a decisive defeat on the IS. According to a report in Thursday’s New York Times, President Obama approved the airstrikes, requested by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, on the condition that Iranian-backed Shiite militias move aside to allow a larger role for Iraqi forces that have worked closely with U.S. troops. They went into action only after Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps who has been advising anti-IS forces around Tikrit, was reported to have left the area:
“The United States has struggled to maintain influence in Iraq, even as Iran has helped direct the war on the ground against the Islamic State. But as the struggles to take Tikrit mounted, with a small band of Islamic State militants holding out against a combined Iraqi force of more than 30,000 for weeks, American officials saw a chance not only to turn the momentum against the Islamic State but to gain an edge against the Iranians.”
According to a Pentagon statement issued on Wednesday, the purpose of the strikes was to hit ISIS targets and to enable “Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to continue offensive operations.” The meaning is clear when we consider General Martin Dempsey’s statement at the onset of the offensive that Iraq’s 24,000 forces included 20,000 “Iranian-trained and somewhat Iranian-equipped” [sic!] Shia militiamen. Those militiamen “pulled back” east of Tikrit once the U.S. began conducting airstrikes, General Lloyd Austin, the U.S. Central Command commander, told Congress on Thursday: “I will not – and I hope we will never – coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias. Preconditions for us to provide support were that the Iraqi government had to be in charge of this operation. We had to know exactly who was on the ground.”
This means that Tikrit will remain under IS control, unlike the city of Amerli where the IS jihadists were driven back by a militia-led ground offensive backed by U.S. airstrikes. According to Gen. Austin, 4,000 Iraqi soldiers and police were now fighting in Tikrit. This is but a fraction of the 23,000 Shiite militia and government forces previously attacking the city. It is obvious that this force cannot complete the job, airstrikes or no airstrikes. “Never, ever coordinating or cooperating” has tangible military consequences.
The U.S. military, as of now, is willing to provide extensive air support only to those Iraqi units that have no obvious Iranian or Shia connection – even if this means that the overall numbers of combatants on the ground and their effectiveness is woefully inadequate to the task of pushing back the battle-hardened IS veterans. Even if Tikrit eventually falls to the small “Iraqi government-commanded” force – an unlikely proposition – the far more important city of Mosul, 140 miles further north, will remain safely under IS control for many months to come. This is exactly what “Caliph” al-Baghdadi wants.
This is no way to fight a battle, let alone a war. Iraq is a sectarian mayhem in which the U.S. should not intervene yet again. It threatens to become but another example of improvised, ad-hoc American involvement in pursuit of unattainable political objectives – such as a “substantial Sunni component” in the Iraqi army – or the exclusion of Iran’s influence from Baghdad which has been made possible by George W. Bush’s war.
General Austin’s statement that he would like his forces to protect the Syrian “moderate” rebels is no less incongruous. Protected from whom, exactly? Most of them want to fight Bashar al-Assad, rather than the IS. “Protecting” them means putting American boots on the Syrian ground in support of an utterly unreliable and untested force in a Hobbesian nightmare, with the possibility that the U.S. gets directly involved against the only army in the region able and willing to fight the IS. Again, this is just what al-Baghdadi would like to happen.