Brian Downing is one of the most astute military analysts around. He has been ahead oif the curve on Libya, Syria, and now the ISIL phenomenon. His analysis paints an sightful but dark picture in terms of outcomes of ISIL's efforts in Iraq and Syria. Michael Collins
By Brian M Downing
seizure of the capital of Anbar province has once again called into
question the effectiveness of the Iraqi army. With poor weather limiting
air support, facing immense vehicle-borne explosives, Iraqi troops fled
Ramadi as they did Mosul last summer. A counteroffensive is underway,
spearheaded by Shia militias. Their effectiveness augurs well in the
ISIL war in Iraq, though their impact on the fragile country worries
Washington and other capitals -- not always wrongly.
discussions of the militias, and their relationship with Iran, have
only recently come to the fore, the forces date back to the Iran-Iraq
War of the eighties when Tehran organized guerrilla bands and political
movements to weaken Saddam's homefront. Washington's surprise, then,
should itself be a surprise.
the US ousted the Sunnis in 2003, it unwittingly though predictably,
boosted the importance of Iran-backed forces. Iran, fearing it was next
in Washington's trumpeted campaign of regime-change in the Middle East,
directed the militias in an insurgency against US and coalition forces
which raged for several years. For reasons neither Washington nor Tehran
has deigned to articulate in public, Shia attacks on US troops and
American threats against Iran both subsided simultaneously and quickly.
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Shia militia fighters have never demonstrated exceptional combat
skills, not against the US, not against ISIL. Indeed, their battle
tactics often border on the foolhardy -- firing wildly while exposed to
enemy fire, relying on ardor over caution. Their forte has always been
tenacity in battle and knowledge of the urban terrain they operate in.
regular Iraqi army is rent by the mixing of Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds --
an awkward, problematic, but politically necessary policy of a
fragmenting nation. This pretense of national unity makes for poor
cohesion at the small-unit level -- the foundation of effective fighting
forces. Soldiers look around and do not see trustworthy fellow soldiers;
they see sectarian and tribal rivals.
contrast, Shia militias are, obviously enough, homogeneous in
composition. Their sectarian identity as an oppressed minority
contributes to better unit cohesion and to greater combat effectiveness.
The cohesion is limited to individual militias and rivalries have
flared into skirmishes in the recent past.
The battle of Ramadi
number of ISIL fighters in and around Ramadi is uncertain, though the
rout of the Iraqi army troops is not thought to have been accomplished
by large numbers of fighters. Some 25000 Iraqi troops -- roughly the
number of ISIL forces in Syria and Iraq combined -- are massing near
Ramadi. Shia militias are expected to spearhead an imminent
counterattack. They are said to be openly expressing their contempt for
regular army troops.
by virtue of its troops' Salafi fervor which supersedes tribal and
national parochialisms, enjoys remarkable cohesion and morale -- probably
more than any army of the region has shown in decades if not centuries.
Further, in Ramadi, they will have the advantage of fighting from
defensive positions in an urban environment, moving from building to
building, firing from rubble pile to rubble pile, sniping from window to
ISIL troops in Ramadi are outnumbered, perhaps ten-to-one, and will
face airstrikes from Iranian and American aircraft. In the absence of
significant help from indigenous Sunnis, who are all too aware of Shia
ethnic cleansing elsewhere, ISIL will, in the course of a lengthy costly
battle, be outmaneuvered on the ground, pounded from the air, and worn
down. Ramadi, like Kobane and Tikrit, will be another battle in what is
becoming a long war of attrition.
rising importance of Shia militias poses questions for the country and
the region as well. Washington and many Sunni capitals are alarmed that
Iran will use its influence with the militias to establish control over
Iraq. Iranian influence, as we have seen, has existed for over twelve
years now, without leading to preponderance in Iraqi government --
Shia-dominated though it is. Iraqis have demonstrated a preference for balancing between Tehran and Washington and they have the political support and oil revenue to see that the policy continues.
Iran knows well that exerting control over Iraq will endanger an
opening with the US, which is critical to the country's economy and
security. It could also spark a ruinous sectarian war in the Middle East
and there would be little doubt which side Washington would favor.
worrisome than the militias' loyalty to Tehran is their future
dispositions toward Baghdad and each other. Victory one day, will, in
their estimation, elevate them from marginal auxiliaries to decisive
vanguards, saviors of the nation, positioning them to ignore or even
push aside Baghdad politicians who remained a-bed during the ISIL war.
The numerous commanders may become antagonistic warlords with ambitions
that do not sit well with the Baghdad government or with rival
commanders either. Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, then, upon the defeat
of ISIL one day, may resemble the cities of Libya.
Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, and author of
The Military Revolution and Political Change and
The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam . He can be reached at brianmdowning|AT|gmail.combriandowning [at] gmail.com