Ankara’s IS Report

Ankara’s IS Report

As all eyes were on the presidential race and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s candidacy announcement this week, a group of experts gathered at the offices of the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) in Ankara to discuss several strategy options in Iraq and what the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL), now known as the Islamic State (IS), next step may be.

Turkey’s former Ambassador to Baghdad Murat Özçelik was present as well.

Özçelik had just returned from London attending another Iraq seminar at the London School of Economics. He shared his conversation with a young scholar Haydar al-Khoei, who is also the great grandson of the respected Shia leader Ayatollah Abul Kasim al-Khoei, bitterly expressing his thoughts on Turkey. Haydar al-Khoei had said this:

“Mr. Ambassador, with all due respect, if a young man Shia sits on a Turkish Airline flight to Hatay next to an Arab man and the other one asks him if he is also going to jihad, if your [Turkey’s] intelligence agency, MİT [National Intelligence Organization], is greeting them at the airport and checking their names on a written document, how do you expect the Shia in Iraq to respect your country? We used to envy Turkey for being liberal and secular.”

Al-Khoei’s remarks are common knowledge in Turkey, yet very few dare to speak so boldly and honestly. His views do not just express the thoughts of a young Shia academic living in London, but a man who has sympathy toward Turkey, so maybe Ankara should listen more carefully.

Aside from Ambassador Özçelik’s remarks, a report prepared by the security and military services in Ankara became the highlight of the USAK meeting. According to the report, the IS are not comparable to al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organization that we have seen so far. The report stresses that IS is an umbrella organization with 25,000 members, of which 15,000 are heavily armed. The sources that prepared the report said the IS has a “liquid” structure and are trained to military standards.

Turkey’s military experts predict that IS’ main aim will be to surround the capital Baghdad and force its surrender by pushing through the belts around it. But it may not be as easy as Mosul. Baghdad is heavily protected and there are very few exit corridors to penetrate. The IS pursues the strategy of shutting down the city with the help of local actors, and in Baghdad there may not be enough local allies. Instead, the IS may use surface-to-air missiles and heavy artillery to attack Balad Airbase and Baghdad’s International Airport in order to neutralize Iraqi’s air assets.

The military expert that prepared the IS Report said this about the organization:

“At the moment, IS fights with exactly the same tactics as the U.S. did in Iraq and Afghanistan to achieve territorial control. It has learned from the American way of fighting. The basic tactic is to make a surprise attack, inflict maximum casualties and spread fear before withdrawing without suffering heavy losses. Then, they wait for the Iraqi forces and unfriendly locals to evacuate the territory. The aim is to create a sterile human population, in ethnic and sectarian terms”

Turkey’s military and intelligence analysts predict that IS will prefer to protect its ground rather than advance into new areas. “If they challenge the Kirkuk area, they may lose other places they won” one analyst said in USAK.

So it is back to the drawing board again. The IS may turn into a local army after forcing the Nouri al-Maliki Government to resign. My sources tell me there are new names on the ground for al-Maliki’s succession. Tarik Najem from the Dawa Party, Ibrahim Jaferi and a surprising Ahmad Chalabi may make a comeback.

IS will be here to stay and luckily there are people in Ankara who follow what they may turn into.