by Wayne White
Senior American officials are considering the deployment of US advisors to some largely isolated pockets of resistance in Iraq’s al-Anbar Province. Such a move would be fraught with risk since Anbar is mainly controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). These garrisons behind IS lines have been coming under greater pressure, and some have recently fallen. A handful of US advisors out there would make little difference, but other measures could help these garrisons hang on.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government has done practically nothing to reverse the dynamic in Anbar by turning Sunni Arabs against IS. Just as former PM Nouri al-Maliki senselessly drove most Sunni Arabs into IS’s arms through persecution, the Abadi government might rather see most Sunni Arabs crushed than empower them by making important concessions. That may sound bizarre, but not if Abadi and his Shi’a cronies believe the US would eventually feel compelled to intervene militarily with combat troops to smash IS (along with a lot of Sunni Arab Iraqis caught in the middle) if Iraqi forces cannot rebound. Baghdad also knows US Congressional hawks have been pressing for such military action.
Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey announced on October 30 that it was necessary to expand the American “train, advise and assist mission…into the al-Anbar Province.” US planners meant to reassure by stating they would not place advisors with units smaller than an Iraqi Army brigade (roughly 2,000 men), but several vulnerable garrisons either have that many soldiers or a composite force that large of soldiers, tribesmen, and in some cases Shi’a militiamen (presumably making them candidates for a US advisory presence—yet not especially safe ones).
The makeup of the garrison of the sprawling al-Asad Airbase complex near the city of Hit is unclear, but the defenders of the vital Haditha Dam on the Euphrates are a mixed bag of soldiers and tribesmen, and those holding the city of Samarra and much of Baiji north of Baghdad are soldiers bolstered by Shi’a militiamen. The garrison of the city of Ramadi west of Baghdad consists of soldiers and tribesmen.
With rough going recently for IS in the Baghdad area, against the Iraqi Kurds, and even in central Iraq, IS has apparently upped its pressure on some of these more isolated locales. Most notably, Hit fell last month. Last week, Islamic State fighters forced the Albu Nimr tribe in Anbar to give up. The tribe had held IS off for months, but resistance finally collapsed after the tribe found itself exhausted and without food and ammunition from the outside. By November 3, over 400 of its members had been massacred including women and children. Other garrisons have received little or no weapons, ammunition, food, or fuel since the initial wave of the IS conquest and may also be nearing the end of their tether.
The brutal treatment of anti-IS Sunni Arabs in Anbar could ultimately backfire on IS. The Islamic State’s roots are in al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Back in 2003-06, AQI’s viciousness helped spawn the “Sunni Arab Awakening” during which Sunni Arab insurgents switched sides and partnered with US and Iraqi forces. Now, however, years of abuse under Maliki have wiped out most Sunni Arabs’ trust of authorities in Baghdad. As a result, so far there have been few indications of spontaneous push-back against IS’s atrocities by its current Sunni Arab allies.
The hazards of deploying US advisors into isolated garrisons could be extreme. Since some garrisons were overwhelmed very quickly once their resistance cracked, there is no guarantee US advisors could be extracted quickly amidst the chaos of such a collapse. Advisors could be killed or captured. If captured, IS would showcase them, and then probably use them for televised beheadings.
Additionally, in pockets with garrisons of Iraqi soldiers mixed with either Shi’a militiamen or tribesmen, US advisors could be threatened by their hosts. Many Shi’a militias are anti-American, harboring profound grudges. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army lost hundreds of fighters to US forces in Karbala in 2004 and Baghdad and Basra in 2008. American advisors could be killed by militiamen under murky circumstances. And garrisons nearing the end of their ability to defend themselves might even turn US advisors over to IS in exchange for guarantees of a safe passage out or better treatment.
The result of the awful death of one or more US advisors at the hands of IS would generate an extreme American reaction back home. Many angry Americans could bolster those wanting to send thousands of US combat troops into the fight.
The risks involved in placing US advisors in harm’s way also probably would not be outweighed by their impact on the conflict. Just as US airstrikes will not remove the Islamic State from Iraq alone, a few US advisors cannot save isolated anti-IS garrisons. Having fought on so long, those in these pockets of resistance already have demonstrated their determination and ability to fight. What they need most are weapons, ammunition, food, and fuel. Reinforcements from Baghdad would help too, but Baghdad has rarely provided those.
In lieu of further exposing US advisors (quite possibly for naught), there is a need to pressure Baghdad to do more for these brave, isolated garrisons. The Iraqi Army already demonstrated its ability to fly ammunition, supplies and even reinforcements into three besieged garrisons: the Baiji oil complex, the city of Samarra, and one area west of Baghdad. Far more of this needs to be done, and the US or its allies could help provide munitions and supplies as well as more air transport capabilities for supply deliveries to these garrisons (by parachute if necessary).
Furthermore, with President Obama re-asserting yesterday that defeating IS in Iraq is “our number one mission,” more heat must be placed on the Abadi government to deliver concessions and assistance to Sunni Arabs. This could enable Baghdad to split additional tribes and relatively secular elements away from IS.
Abadi must be told US patience has run out, and that more robust support will not be provided until this happens. Indeed, in the absence of a Baghdad initiative to kick start the Sunni Arab abandonment of IS, Sunni Arabs do not want to be “liberated” by Shi’a militias already guilty of atrocities in anti-IS operations north of Baghdad. On October 31, the source of emulation for Shi’a Iraqis, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, also urged that Sunni Arab tribes in Anbar resisting IS be provided with munitions, and warned Shi’a militias against harming Sunni Arab civilians.
As has been the case all along, the most potent asset in IS’s portfolio has been the harsh sectarianism and appalling ineptitude of one—now quite possibly two—Shi’a dominated Iraqi governments. Plan B in coping with the threat faced by Anbar’s remaining anti-IS forces should not be sending US advisors into that unpredictable maelstrom in an effort to compensate for Baghdad’s failings. Without game-changing Iraqi concessions drawing thousands of Sunni Arab fighters away from IS, even if US ground forces were deployed, they too would face a far tougher slog.
Photo: A police station in the town of Hit, Anbar Province, damaged by heavy fighting earlier this month. (Credit: Reuters)