Signs of Life from the White House

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President Obama has justified the kinetic action being undertaken by the US against the Islamic State as being one of protecting the 40,000 Yazidis fleeing from in and around Mosul, the de facto capital of the Islamic State. The ancient, religious minority is trapped on the Sinjar mountains, 160 kilometers west of Mosul; whereas Erbil, the site of US airstrikes is 90 kilometers east of Mosul. The airstrikes on the outskirts of Erbil have nothing to do with protecting the religious minority, which is trapped on a mountain 250 kilometers away. The White House has bravely tried to couple the two operations and justified both by a obligation to protect a beleaguered minority the media can love. This is baloney.

The airdrops were certainly prompted by humanitarian concerns for the Yazidis. American C-130 transport planes have delivered significant amounts of food and water in the past two days. The C-130s are flanked by the navy’s F-18 fighters, which indicates that the US is using naval assets in the Mediterranean for the mission. The airstrikes outside Erbil on the other hand, were carried out by drones launched from the Iraqi interior (although the US denies that it has air bases inside Iraq, that is a hard pill to swallow), or more likely from air bases in Turkey. In either case, the two operations are totally distinct military missions run by different components of the military apparatus. The fighters accompanying the transport planes carrying humanitarian aid are only tasked with protecting the planes themselves. The United States is not attacking Isis targets around Mosul.

American airstrikes outside Erbil are, for now, meant to push back the menacing Isis fighters threatening the Kurdish capital. The White House has announced that the airstrikes may last for months. This can only mean that the United States intends to attack the Islamic State in earnest. This is good news. A complicating factor is the capture of the Mosul dam by the Isis. This is a tremendous strategic asset: threatened with the recapture of Mosul, the Isis could destroy the dam by detonating a bomb or shelling it with artillery. The unraveling of the dam would unleash a 65-foot Tsunami down the Tigris. It would completely destroy Mosul and a number of other towns downstream. Even Baghdad would be hit by a 15-foot wave. The capital of the Iraqi rump state would be submerged within three days. Mosul would utterly disappear under 25 meters of water. The Islamic State is also engaged in combat to gain control of Haditha dam on the Euphrates. They seem to be negotiating a surrender of the town with Sunni tribal leaders and militant groups. The Haditha dam powers Baghdad and would be an even more potent strategic asset in the hands of the Islamic State. They could use it as an offensive weapon—unlike the Mosul dam which can only be used as a defensive weapon—since its rupture would threaten the Shi’a holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, without affecting much of the territory controlled by the Islamic State.

It would have been far easier to crush the Islamic State before it acquired control over significant power resources. Since the policy tensor first recommended kinetic action, the Islamic State has wrestled control of strategic highways, dams, airfields, oilfields, and arsenals. It has also established a functioning administrative apparatus in areas under its control. Towns which had hitherto been sites of constant fighting have been stabilized as a result of the establishment of the Islamic State’s monopoly of violence. By endowing areas under its control with a modicum of security, the Islamic State has purchased legitimacy in the eyes of the conquered. This has further increased the Islamic State’s mobilization capacity and made it harder to dislodge. The recent rout of Peshmerga forces at the hands of the Islamic State imply that the Islamic State must now be reckoned to be at least as strong as the KRG, if not stronger. State formation always implies a sharp increase in war-making capabilities, so this should come as no surprise.

The Islamic State is now in a good position to hold on to its territory, perhaps even against a joint effort by the KRG and Baghdad. The United States has ruled out the introduction of American ground forces, whilst promising an open-ended air campaign. American air power can contain the Islamic State. Airstrikes, by themselves however, are incapable of destroying the Islamic State. But neither Baghdad nor Erbil is in any position to mount a major land campaign for now. Perhaps with Maliki out of power by next week and the establishment of a more inclusive government in Baghdad, the political and confessional underpinnings of the Sunni rebellion may be undermined. Even then, it would take a while before Iraqi ground forces are effective enough to retake territory in concert with American air support. The Maliki government is close to Tehran. This is part of the reason why Washington has refused to provide air support until he is ousted (American strategists also believe that the Sunni rebellion is driven by Maliki’s sectarianism and cannot be thwarted without political accommodation by Baghdad). But Iranian influence in Baghdad is much deeper than Maliki: any viable Shi’a leader will reach out for Iranian support against opponents in domestic Iraqi politics. There isn’t must Washington can do about that. Cutting a deal with Iran would make the task of defeating the Islamic State considerably easier.

American airstrikes outside Erbil have clarified US policy with respect to the KRG: whatever happens in Baghdad, the United States will not allow the defacto Kurdish state to knuckle under. Degrading the Islamic State’s capabilities is going to prove harder to achieve; getting Baghdad or Erbil to mount a credible land campaign against the Islamic State harder still.

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