ISIS in Iraq: The ‘pause’ IS the assault on Baghdad

ISIS in Iraq: The ‘pause’ IS the assault on Baghdad

The media refrain from the last 24 hours has been that ISIS is pausing in its sweep to the south toward Baghdad.  At least some of the mobile forces that entered Mosul the weekend of 7-8 June took off again at a trot, heading south through the Tigris River corridor and seizing Tikrit by Tuesday, scattering terrified Iraqis and foreign workers in their path.  But since then, ISIS hasn’t made further southerly progress through the Tigris corridor toward Baghdad.

The media have half-heartedly attributed this slowdown to force deployments by the Iraqi government, which have been accompanied by a few attacks on ISIS from the air.  But I think the journalists know this doesn’t really explain the slowdown, even if they can’t articulate why.

For one thing, ISIS doesn’t have to fight anywhere it doesn’t want to.  It’s waging a sort of guerrilla blitzkrieg right now, but unlike a massive armor and mechanized infantry force, it leaves no deployed men and equipment around, grouped in large formations that make attractive military targets.  Indeed, worse than not presenting a conventional military profile, ISIS seizes control of urban enclaves and forces the opponent to attack the people’s homes and businesses, if he wants to attack ISIS.

But I believe the important thing about the “pause” we’re seeing on the path to Baghdad is that it’s what we would expect ISIS to do, because it is the inauguration of the assault on Baghdad.  Some observers have already noted that ISIS is now consolidating positions outside of Baghdad.  That matters, but the more significant point is that ISIS was never going to attack Baghdad by entering it in force:  rolling through the streets in Humvees for a photo op.  When we see “random” explosions and assassinations proliferating inside Baghdad, that’s how we’ll know the assault is peaking.

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ISIS has to soften Baghdad up first, because it is a much bigger objective than any city ISIS has taken up to now.  The map progression shows its geographic size relative to other key cities like Ramadi, Falluja, and Mosul.  Mosul has a substantially larger population than the Anbar Province cities, but it’s still smaller than Baghdad by an order of magnitude, at least in terms of military planning.

Relative sizes of key cities taken by ISIS - versus Baghdad. (Google maps; author annotation)
Relative sizes of key cities taken by ISIS – versus Baghdad. (Google maps; author annotation)

Baghdad’s population is about 3.8 million.  And its geo-ethnic conditions are particularly challenging, with the city’s big majority of Shias, and the Shias’ stronghold to the south, which will be – in my estimate – too tough a nut for ISIS to crack simultaneously with a campaign in Baghdad itself.

ISIS has no intention of “marching on” Baghdad.  The Sunni affiliates of ISIS are going to disrupt life in the city – government security, police, public services – so that Baghdad will be pinned down and tortured, unable to restore order or impose a unified political will.  This will take some time; the point is that the campaign will be underway, even though the ISIS shock troops we saw in Mosul are not careering through the city in a visible and identifiable manner.

ISIS modus operandi

Consider just two pieces of information (although there is a much more extensive narrative to pick from).  One is the backstory on today’s bit of news that ISIS has “captured” two villages in Diyala Province – between Baghdad and the border of Iran – and is menacing the key Diyala city of Baquba.

ISIS hasn’t just now moved into Diyala Province.  This territorial maneuver has been underway for some time, as recounted in a report published in April by the Institute for the Study of War.  Diyala Province has been a favorite haunt of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) for nearly a decade, but the last two years (2012-13) saw a significant increase in attacks there on Iraqi national forces, alongside the establishment of a permanent presence by ISIS and affiliated groups.

In fact, the ISIS onslaught over in Anbar Province in late 2013 created fresh opportunities in Diyala Province, by drawing Iraqi national forces westward to Anbar to counter the threat there.  ISIS’s “seizure” of villages in Diyala, in the last couple of days, is really more a matter of proclaiming control of urban redoubts that ISIS – whether operating as AQI or under the name of another Sunni insurgent group – has held in all but name for more than a year now.  ISIS prepares its ground for these urban “takeovers.”

Extent of ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria.  Diyala Province indicated by author. (Institute for the Study of War map via BBC)
Extent of ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria. Diyala Province indicated by author. (Institute for the Study of War map via BBC)

The other piece of information is one that doesn’t seem to have penetrated the U.S. media yet.  It provides unique insight into ISIS’s intricate methods of establishing local power (as well as the breadth of its resources, and the meticulous nature of its administration and planning).

In early June, shortly before the assault on Mosul, Iraqi national forces nabbed the courier for ISIS’s top military commander in northern Iraq.  They were able, by interrogating him, to find and raid the military commander’s location, killing him in the process but also recovering a huge stash of information about ISIS.

According to UK and Irish reporting, the treasure trove of intelligence was promptly shared with the CIA.  There was plenty about ISIS’s finances, composition, and leadership:

Before Mosul, their total cash and assets were $875m. Afterwards, with the money they robbed from banks and the value of the military supplies they looted, they could add another $1.5bn to that.” Laid bare were a series of staggering numbers that would be the pride of any major enterprise, let alone an organisation that was a start-up three years ago.

The group’s leaders had been meticulously chosen. Many of those who reported to the top tier did not know the names of their colleagues. The strategic acumen of Isis was impressive – so too its attention to detail. “They had itemised everything,” the source said. “Down to the smallest detail.” …

Foreign jihadists, many from Europe, were among those who stormed into Mosul. Most of their names were already known to the intelligence agencies that had tried to track their movements. But noms de guerre given to the new arrivals had left their trails cold. Now officials had details of next of kin, and often phone numbers and emails.

There was also information about ISIS putting its hooks into its occupied territories’ economies, controlling operations (and hence lives) and exploiting them for its purposes:

Over the past year, foreign intelligence officials had learned that Isis had secured massive cashflows from the oilfields of eastern Syria, which it had commandeered in late 2012, and some of which it had sold back to the Syrian regime. It was also known to have reaped windfalls from smuggling all manner of raw materials pillaged from the crumbling state, as well as priceless antiquities from archaeological digs.

But here before them in extraordinary detail were accounts giving a full reckoning of a war effort. It soon became clear that in less than three years, Isis had grown from a ragtag band of extremists to perhaps the most cash-rich and capable terror group in the world.

This history bodes ill for oilfield workers in northern Iraq, certainly.  The intelligence jackpot from early June clarifies, chapter and verse, how ISIS acts in a deliberate and coordinated manner.  ISIS is in this for the long haul, and in fact is waging its war even when it’s not engaging in visible, showy military maneuvers.

It’s tempting to say that ISIS’s history in Syria is a guide to what will happen in Iraq, but that’s only partly accurate.  The Assad regime’s troops have actually performed better than we can expect the Iraqi forces to perform.  Assad’s forces were better drilled (and in some ways better equipped) to begin with, and had the direct and overt support of both Iranian and Russian military advisors.  It’s unclear as yet what kind of outside support the Maliki government will have.

It’s also unclear what kind will be useful.  “Air strikes,” mentioned reflexively by Western media and U.S. officials, may be of very limited value, given the fluid, guerrilla nature of the ISIS enemy.  ISIS doesn’t garrison its force in big camps, or park lots of vehicles at maintenance depots to get the taxpayer the most for his logistics dollar.  Nor are ISIS’s weapons stored or transported in well-understood and vulnerable ways.  The gut-wrenching reality is that the more of Iraq ISIS occupies, the more Iraqi infrastructure may have to be destroyed to prevent ISIS from using it.  The same is true for ISIS’s base in Syria.  Working effectively against this kind of enemy will be almost impossible without some forces on the ground, for tactical intelligence, interrogation, target coordination, etc.

U.S. reactions

This is the highly unstable security situation in which the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has been partially evacuated, with much of its personnel contingent merely redistributed to our consulates in Iraq: Irbil in the north and Basrah in the south.  The entire country is a battleground for ISIS – even if the U.S. media can’t see that yet – but we are actually moving Americans out of the relatively protected Green Zone in Baghdad, and into less-fortified facilities in the hinterland.  The 100 U.S. Marines being sent to Baghdad for extra embassy security are not a force suited to the nature of the security problem.  They can’t stop terrorist bombs and RPGs.

Nor can they help the American civilians still struggling to get out of Iraq, over whom a blanket of silence has effectively dropped.  Little has been heard since the middle of last week about the Americans and other foreign workers who had to flee Mosul (and other parts of northern Iraq) when the Iraqi army fled, and who are trying to get from Kurdish-held territory to safety elsewhere via a collapsed air transit system.  There is no further information about the 100-200 American contractors who were left at the Balad Air Base (near Samarra and Tikrit) on Friday after the Iraqis evacuated some of them.

The 550 Marines coming into the Persian Gulf on USS Mesa Verde (LPD-19), along with a detachment of five MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, represent an increase in Marine Corps capability.  But 550 Marines are also insufficient for the potential tasks in Iraq – unless we plan to do nothing beyond evacuating our embassy personnel in relatively convenient and low-threat conditions (and that means evacuating just our embassy personnel.  Evacuating other Americans from Iraq, and even evacuating our consulates, if they come under threat, would require a larger force).

As mentioned in earlier posts, we already have 15,000 U.S. Army troops in Kuwait, including a combat aviation brigade.  This force was stationed in Kuwait specifically to be a response force after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in December 2011.  It’s still there.

(Interestingly, in April, the Army forces in Kuwait hosted an AH-64D Apache battalion deployed from U.S. forces in Germany, which conducted interoperability training in the Persian Gulf with USS Mesa Verde.)

Army AH-64D Apache from the 3-159 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion takes off from USS Mesa Verde during interoperability training in the Persian Gulf in April 2014.  (Photo, US Army, Emily McGuire)
Army AH-64D Apache from the 3-159 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion takes off from USS Mesa Verde during interoperability training in the Persian Gulf in April 2014. (Photo, US Army, Emily McGuire)

Mesa Verde left the Gulf in May for a date with the multinational antipiracy force off Somalia, where she conducted a passing exercise on 10 June with the Turkish navy ships TCG Gediz and TCG Orucreis (which are conducting Turkey’s Barbaros deployment: a circumnavigation of Africa).

The other ships in the USS Bataan (LHD-5) amphibious ready group (ARG) have been split between theaters, with Bataan in the Mediterranean, and USS Gunston Hall (LSD-44) in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea through late May.  This has become common in recent years, but it does mean the ARG and its embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), 22 MEU in this case, are not formed up to provide all the combat force they are capable of.

Given the widespread loss of security in Iraq, nothing less than a full-blown combat force is sufficient if the U.S. needs to conduct a non-permissive evacuation of our citizens.  Although we have the forces available, between the military services – the Army in Kuwait, the Air Force in Qatar, the Navy and Marine Corps afloat and in Bahrain – we appear to be reacting, instead of preparing, with too little, too late.

Certainly, we aren’t alerting or moving a force sufficient to assist Iraq or influence developments in country.  We have considerable scope for assistance without preemptive intervention: i.e., without taking over the defense of Iraq.  We shouldn’t do the latter.  People will have differing opinions on how much of the former we should do.  But the blunt reality is that the situation is moving much faster than we are.  Reacting today with a force that might have made a difference 10 days ago could even be worse than useless.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.