The IS vs. Baghdad: Battles Within Competing Strategies

Why has the regime only now chosen to attack Islamic State (IS) positions in eastern Anbar?  The answers are threefold: first, the regime felt compelled to remove—finally, IS bomb-making capacity in Fallujah and several surrounding communities. Second, after three years Baghdad is overcoming some of its strategic myopia.  Mosul—as Iraq’s second largest city is in the eyes of numerous Iraqi political and military leaders, more important, more symbolic. Third, Fallujah represents a wicked military problem that the regime would like to put off postpone sidestep until Mosul is Fallujah Battle Captureretaken. Underlying that point is the modern Iraqi history record that informs Iraqis that foreign armies—in this case the regime’s predominantly Sh’ia Iraqi Army and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), enter Fallujah in strength and leave badly mauled.

Regardless of those three points, the IS is able to drive Baghdad’s strategic choice-making…so much for an Islamic State on the ropes. For its part, the IS is buying time in its planned defense of Mosul by forcing Baghdad to make the strategic decision of fighting through IS’s full operational depth from its seat in eastern Anbar instead of leaping forward to launch a campaign from Mosul’s near periphery.

In important ways this phase of the fight to push Da’esh out of Iraq is at its most dangerous juncture.  As the Iraqi Army, Police, and PMUs push toward Fallujah from the east and north to complete their encirclement, the reconquest of Fallujah seems to have an air of inevitability.  It is entirely possible that Baghdad wins Fallujah but loses an ability to retake Mosul until late fall or early winter.  Furthermore, success at removing organized IS resistance does not translate into a stable, secure, and pacified Fallujah.  More so than the reconquest of Ramadi or other areas in central and western Anbar, a failure to remove the threat of future insurgent operations from Fallujah will not remove the risk of more bombings that threaten to topple the regime in Baghdad.   Thus far in this campaign the regime is repeating what Iraqi forces have half heartedly attempted since early 2014.  The only things new in this fight are the scope of Iraqi forces and a sense of urgency at pushing Da’esh out of Fallujah.

The armed push of last week from the east and north allowed regime forces to resupply from the direction of Baghdad while they swept into Albu Bali, Garmah, and other communities on the flanks of Fallujah.  Retaking these communities was a crucial opening phase; the Iraqi Army learned from its previous operations in eastern Anbar that a failure to consolidate control and security of area communities leaves Iraqi forces–specifically, artillery batteries and logistics forces vulnerable to IS attack. In 2014 and again in 2015, the Iraqi Army lost a number of long-range 155MM artillery weapons in such IS counter-attacks.  Theoretically, Iraqi operations over the last week reduced the likelihood of IS counter attack within the front and middle areas of Iraqi Army units and PMUs moving toward positions surrounding Fallujah.

However, a problem thus far not publicly acknowledged by the regime are the 50,000+ civilians hostages who now remain trapped imprisoned interned within Fallujah. To the extent any of them were able, some civilians fled before the start of the current campaign.  However, after this operation began, IS militants reinforced roadway barricades in/out of Fallujah to create a strengthened defensible perimeter designed to stall the approach of Iraqi security forces.  Those barricades also act as impassable barriers that keep civilians trapped within Fallujah. By design, the IS intends to use Fallujians by the thousands as human shields to cover IS movements and confuse Coalition targeting; all to thwart the momentum of Iraqi forces.  To further complicate matters, any reports that civilians within Fallujah are opposing government forces is testament to the squishiness of intelligence estimates of IS strength owing to the fact that yes, some of the “innocent” do aid IS jihadis but more to the point, events within Fallujah are not well understood by people outside of IS circles.

Shifting from the tactical to the strategic level the state of affairs within Iraq is such that the killing of innocent civilians within Fallujah does not impose high enough costs upon Baghdad because of the preexisting sectarian divide throughout Iraq.  But that simplification overlooks the reality that the IS–a Sunni movement, uses the optics of the situation in Anbar to stoke its sectarian domestic war narrative within Iraq and elsewhere.  Why?  Because the IS is run by battle hardened Iraqis who are eager to put the regime into the unenviable position of killing the Sunni civilians of Fallujah with Sh’ia forces.

The presence in and around Fallujah of the Sh’ia PMUs further reinforces and legitimizes the IS argument that this is the apostate government of Iraq’s war aided by its western allies to exterminate the caliphate and the ummah–its Sunni base.  The regime, concerned about these optics instructed the PMUs not to enter Fallujah as the fight unfolds. The problem with that order is that it relies upon the PMU 2discipline of the PMUs to comply and not to heap new victimization upon Fallujah’s Sunni inhabitants. PMU forces will enter Fallujah as they have done elsewhere on the pretext of responding to in-kind IS attacks and pursuing IS militants into Fallujah.  More importantly, the Iraqi Army has shown that it needs the added manpower of the PMUs to take and hold on to gains.  If the regime is serious about keeping the PMUs out of Fallujah proper, the overall momentum of Iraqi government forces will stall.

While US airpower operates in support of Iraqi Army units only, and Iraqi airpower supports both regime regular forces and the PMUs, the rubbleization of Fallujah will adhere to the familiar pattern: aerial and ground destruction to uncover, pursue, and kill dug-in IS militants.  A concern is that the campaign to retake eastern Anbar including Fallujah will delay a nascent campaign in Mosul.  Further limiting government options is that it does not have a strategic reserve to push north to sever Fallujah from IS supply lines linked to Mosul and other IS routes through the jazeera desert of western Iraq.  To the degree the regime had any uncommitted military and security forces, they redeployed into Baghdad weeks ago in the hopes of stanching the tidal wave of auto, truck, and suicide bombings.

Can the IS mount a counter-offensive against the regime? In a classic military sense, probably not, but small-scale IS counter-attacks will continue. The problem of a counter-offensive for the IS is massing forces and firepower—both of which makes them vulnerable to aerial attack. Additionally, Anbar is not the Islamic State’s only contested front. US Special Forces are embedded within Kurdish forces in what is so far a bid of some success to set conditions to go the to the heart of the IS to directly threaten Raqaa.

IS forces in Iraq are operating from dwindling stocks of everything they need.  IS militants face consumption challenges and are rationing what they have to keep themselves alive and viable.  This indicators, against a US caliber fighting force would suggest that armed resistance is about to collapse; however, a US fighting force is not on the ground.  Against government forces IS occupiers of Fallujah believe they stand a change of bogging down Baghdad’s eastern Anbar operation. If IS only modestly succeeds at this goal, Fallujah could remain in IS hands for some indefinite period; sufficient opportunity to resume bombings to complete the destabilization of Baghdad.

Able to do that, the IS could create the conditions that unseat Haider al-Abadi by illustrating the regime is powerless to protect Sh’ia Iraqis; ergo, time for a new regime. Even if the IS does not get that kind of outcome from opposing this government campaign, IS forces may leave the Fallujah battlefield and live to fight on.  As in all wars, the strategies are locked in a competition.  The side that makes the fewest lethal mistakes in Anbar will attain the upper hand; even if temporarily.

1 June Update:  Iraq CTS continue to attack Fallujah from east, south, and west.  The western attack is problematic given the Euphrates River so CTS movement is confined to ingress from the northwest.  IS defenses in this sector will be among the strongest in Fallujah.  Eastern attacks into Fallujah’s industrial area failed in 2014 & 2015 due to IS’s elaborate defenses and more distant shooting sight lines. Like their attempts in 2014 & 2015, the southern axis of attack may yield initial gains for CTS in Fallujah’s Al Shuhdaa and Al Jubail sectors.  For CTS to prevail in this campaign they must do better what they did poorly in the past:  flood the southern sectors with personnel and spread out laterally; deep penetrations by small CTS units risk being surrounded and cutoff in IS sniper and crossfire counter-attacks.  It is unclear how many civilians remain in Shuhdaa and Jubail.  Shuhdaa in particular contains hundreds of low buildings and narrow streets with prepared ambush locations, road buried IEDs, and explosively rigged structures.  Aerial attacks may be somewhat helpful to CTS but civilian casualty and collateral damage considerations will limit US air strikes; less so for Iraqi airpower and 155mm artillery.

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