City sieges have storied places in lore, history, and consciousness. Be it Troy (1200 BCE), Tyre (332 BCE), Damascus (634), Constantinople (1453), or Leningrad (1941-1944), defense of cities under determined attack did not always end as the belligerents intended. With few exceptions, sieges of cities across the millennia have two points in common: widespread collateral damage and significant non-combatant casualties. Since the beginning of 2016, life in Fallujah, Iraq is increasingly being lived well below the subsistence level by most of its estimated 30,000-60,000 non-Islamic State (IS) inhabitants captives. Starvation is appearing.
In 2014-15, it was incorrect to characterize the plan method strategy Iraqi military’s approach to retaking Fallujah as a siege campaign; rather, their approach was a loose and ineffective military cordon. For lack of political will, sufficient forces, and strategic creativity, the Iraqi military chose to place Iraqi units on select approaches to Fallujah—and always, talk tough. As months yielded to years, the population of Fallujah dwindled after the Islamic State (IS) first occupied the city in late 2013. Initially, the IS presence tended toward benign. Within reactionary Fallujah, the city’s restive Sunni population perceived the IS as an overdue answer to Nouri al-Maliki era’s of ham fisted state security forces tactics and blatant anti-Sunni policies. Later, remaining Fallujis sought to get along by going along with the IS while others sensed a looming danger and fled at their first opportunity.
Somewhat attributable to Fallujah’s place in contemporary Iraqi political history, the Sh’ia dominated regime in Baghdad tried, not well enough, to wrest Fallujah from IS control. Throughout 2014, the IS demonstrated tenacity in Fallujah and elsewhere. To save face, the inadequately trained, equipped, and led Iraqi military withdrew to positions on Fallujah’s periphery and employed an approach that allowed the regime to claim they were doing something. That something–standoff firepower, was portrayed in media loyal to the regime as effective when it was not: heaving thousands of 155mm artillery rounds and over one hundred Hellfire against places inside Fallujah. To further illustrate poor Iraqi Army skills at the time, even at “safer” peripheral distances of 15-18 kilometers, some Iraqi 155mm gun positions were over-run and the guns captured by IS militants that roamed the area; so large were the gaps in the Iraqi military’s cordon…and confidence. There is much to suggest that during the last two years the Iraqi military exercised episodic restraint in its generally lax firepower discipline within Fallujah, and attached less importance to outright preventing civilian casualties and driving down collateral damage. To date, no source has authoritatively documented the quantity of non-IS Fallujis injured or killed by regime artillery and aerial attacks.
With areas of Fallujah still in ruins from the battles of 2004, Iraqi attacks over the last 2+ years re-rubblized (to produce yet more rubble through repeated attack) more of Fallujah. To read that +/- 45,000 Iraqis remain alive in Fallujah is to wonder why they remained. Broad-brush explanations, especially western cultural experiences do not suffice. Briefly, if Fallujah was/is your home, the IS likely looked like other events come to Fallujah over the last 15 years. Regardless of who the occupiers were or their purpose, businesses, homes, families, relationships, and livelihoods continued to remain timelessly rooted in that community regardless of whose flag flew in Fallujah. Eventually, time yielded new IS priorities in Fallujah. Now, the IS is repurposing its non-IS
guests hostages captives for more important roles.
Western observers suggest IS intends to use Fallujis in a tactical role as a vast supply of human shields. As a fully developed idea, that explanation suffers. From their experiences in Tikrit and Ramadi, the IS learned that a more valuable use for so many Fallujis is their presence which adds unhelpful uncertainty and complexity to US and Coalition targeting. Since US rules of engagement stipulate a more stringent standard of differentiation between non-IS civilians and IS militants, the presence of thousands of non-IS civilians within Fallujah impacts the frequency, scope, and destructiveness of US aerial attacks. However, there are other IS plans afoot.
How are Fallujis faring now? Earlier this year the regime remedied gaps in its cordon operational approach. Today, very little enters; and because of shrewd IS control, few if any non-IS Fallujis exit. Owing to US efforts and the heft of added militia manpower, the Iraqi cordon now prevents people, supplies, and contraband from entering Fallujah. Emboldened by their recent victory in Ramadi, it would appear Baghdad perceives it gained the upper hand. The point is not who has the upper hand; rather, at what cost to non-IS Fallujis is the regime’s siege approach?
If Baghdad believes that the path to retaking Mosul is by starving out the IS in Fallujah, then the regime may ultimately be responsible for killing anywhere from 15-30 Fallujis for every IS militant estimated to remain in the city. When that math adds up, 30,000 to perhaps as many as 60,000 Sunni dead in Fallujah becomes a human catastrophe. UNHCR estimates the quantity of internally displaced people at nearly four million—1 out of 11 Iraqis. When placed alongside +/- 45,000 non-IS lives in Fallujah, the regime’s decision to prevent food or medical supplies from entering Fallujah is the equivalent of driving what remains of regime legitimacy over an IED engineered by Baghdad’s own decision-making.
However, it is a strategic blunder of the highest magnitude that the regime did not see this coming. Even if the regime could plausibly claim it did not foresee a scenario where so many Iraqis are held captive by the IS in Fallujah, that the regime enforces the harm the cordon inflicts is evidence the regime is deeply bound to its approach—despite its likely significant human costs. While the Iraqi military prefers a bloodless approach to retaking Fallujah, their calculus more troubling when contrasted with America’s unwavering commitment to as few non-IS civilian casualties and collateral damage as practical.
In closing, a few takeaways. First, the path to enduring victory and internal Iraqi stability does not lie on a trajectory where the regime is complicit in the deaths of more of its own people in one location than the IS. Second, the IS may be fanatical but it is coldly rational. Upon closer analysis, their plan comes into focus. The IS will inflict costs a different way: allow tens of thousands of Fallujis to die at the hands of the regime’s approach. Third, with time working against them, the regime cannot afford to starve out IS occupiers in Fallujah. To keep the ship of state upright, Baghdad needs to maintain momentum and retake Mosul sooner rather than later. But here is an emerging insight: Mosul will look like another Fallujah. Meant to wear down the regime by capitalizing on its inherent strategic impatience and marginal competence, the IS strategy in Fallujah is designed to heap more costs upon the regime–costs the regime believes it can bear but can ill afford more of. If thousands of Fallujis perish, this era will produce a bumper crop of Sunni rage…the gas in the tank to radicalize the next militant generation.
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