Destroying ISIL is still a distant dream
Following the latest news about intensified preparations to launch an operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Mosul, it has stepped up its assaults in various parts of Iraq in recent weeks. Most recently last week, it carried out a suicide attack with an explosives-laden fuel tanker at the main checkpoint near Hillah, a Shia city 95 km south of Baghdad, killing at least 60 people and wounding many more. In another double suicide bombing again in a Shia district in eastern Baghdad, it killed more than 70 people. In fact, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), total of 670 Iraqis -two thirds of which were civilians- were killed in acts of terrorism, violence and armed attacks only in February 2016.
ISIL has been trying to increase violence in strategic locations mainly against Shiites, both to delay operations against it and to provoke widespread sectarian conflict in the country. Even though Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly emphasized the determination of his government to wipe out ISIL from Iraq, the dismal performance of inexperienced and inadequately trained Iraqi security forces has resulted in postponement of promised extensive operations against it.
ISIL has controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria since it started its offensive in early 2014. Although the Iraqi army with the help of U.S. special forces and air support as well as Iranian militias recaptured Tikrit last year and Ramadi in January 2016, several key cities like Mosul and Fallujah are still controlled by ISIL. While the Iraqi government has been preparing for a counter offensive to retake Mosul since its fall in June 2014, the operational difficulties of an assault on a heavily guarded city and political rivalries are delaying the operation.
The complex and multilayered composition of groups fighting ISIL and the fact that the Iraqi army does not have enough troops to tackle ISIL in different parts of Iraq are the main challenges. It is clear that the Iraqi security forces would be unable to mount a successful operation against ISIL without the support of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iran-backed Shia militias. However, different strategic aims of Kurdish and Shia groups complicate the situation as their involvement contains risk of exacerbating ethnic and sectarian tensions within the country, a result that ISIL has been trying to instigate.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition has continued to attack ISIL targets both in Syria and Iraq from the air. So far, according to the Pentagon, the coalition forces have launched more than 10,000 air strikes, proving that only widespread air operations can stop the expansion of a military force but not defeat it.
Although the U.S. Special Envoy Bret McGurk announced, “the operation to liberate Mosul from ISIL was underway” just before the latest attacks in Iraq, the U.S. too has serious concerns on the ground. After the failure of the stillborn strategy “train and equip,” the U.S. stopped training of individual fighters in October 2015 and still does not favor American boots on the ground. Instead, it supports the Iraqi army with air strikes against ISIL targets and its supply routes.
An operation to retake Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul, is a must soon and if successful, would be a strategic gain in the fight against ISIL. However, destroying it is still a distant dream through operations conducted by the weak and long-suffering Iraqi army and equally badly governed Iraqi state. A successful operation against ISIL needs a comprehensive and long-term strategy that includes cooperation of international forces and plans to rebuild an effective and inclusive government in Iraq. What to do in Syria is altogether different story, requiring another complicated long-term strategy.