The U.S. Anti-ISIS Strategy's True Cost
05 March 2015
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
On Monday the Iraqi military launched its largest operation to date against
the self-declared Islamic State (IS), also called ISIS, to retake control of
the city of Tikrit. Alongside the Iraqi military the coalition fighting IS in
Tikrit includes Kurdish and Sunni tribal forces, but it leans heavily on
Iranian backed Shia militias and reportedly includes a contingent from Iran's
revolutionary guard. The urgent question now as the battle against IS
intensifies is whether any US policy to defeat IS in Iraq can achieve its aim
without ceding the country as a base for Iranian expansionism.
Critics who regard President Obama's regional policy as aiming for a grand
détente with Iran have frequently argued that the current approach undermines
attempts to counter IS. The bargain for making a deal with Iran, these
critics say, has allowed Iran a free hand to assert dominance in Iraq, Syria,
Lebanon and Yemen.
Exhibit A for this line of thinking is Iran's cultivation of proxy militias
in Iraq, principally in the Badr Organization, Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib
Ahl al-Haq, These militias have not just been active on the frontlines in
Iraq but also have arguably played the leading role in all major offensives
to retake territory from IS, with Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp figure
Qassem Suleimani helping to direct operations.
The Badr Organization in particular, with its control of the Interior
Ministry, seems poised to become Iraq's version of Hezbollah. Last fall, the
group launched 'Operation Ashura' to clear out Jurf al-Sakhr to the south of
Baghdad. Under Suleimani's guidance, the operation employed a successful
strategy of amassing vast militia manpower operating under cover of U.S.
A virtually identical tactic is now being implemented in the offensive to
capture Tikrit where U.S. airstrikes are reportedly supporting the militia
Since these proxy militias frequently engage in ethnic cleansing against
Sunnis and answer directly to Iran, they bolster IS' narrative that it is
defending Sunnis against a sectarian government, arguably undermining any
attempt to roll back IS. Besides, reflecting Iran's own anti-American
ideology, they also promote a narrative that the U.S. is behind the IS
phenomenon, further undermining U.S. influence in Iraq to the benefit of
There is much to be said in favour of these arguments. Since the fall of
Mosul to IS in June 2014 and the call to arms issued by Iraq's most senior
Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Sistani, militias that are ideologically aligned with
Iran ('Khomeinist') if not actual proxies have proliferated most, with many
new brands emerging beyond the three mentioned above. A considerable degree
of overlap exists between these new groups. For instance, one commander I
interviewed issimultaneously involved with two recognizably Khomeinist
militias: Kata'ib al-Imam al-Gha'ib (a 'Hezbollah' brand) and the Mujahideen
of Iraq Brigade, the 'military wing' of the Nasrallah Islamic Movement (named
after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah).
Beyond the question of Iranian influence, those who defend the 'Popular
Mobilization' trend as a military necessity tend to downplay the more general
negative consequences of militiafication. There is little reason to accept
former U.S. defence official Douglas Ollivant's contention that the militias
"will either return home or be regularized by the central government in some
way" once the IS threat is dealt with. Militias also create an atmosphere of
lawlessness and criminality regardless of the sectarian issue. Indeed, some
of the militias themselves have acknowledged the problem of kidnappings and
stealing in their name, including a Khomeinist militia known as Kata'ib Ruh
The complaints about Iran's expanding influence in Iraq are valid but they
raise an important question that has yet to be answered. How exactly do you
curb Iranian influence at this stage when its forces dominate in Iraq? The
usual line here is to say that the U.S. needs to stop abetting the Iranian
proxies through airstrikes and arms provisions to the Iraqi government. But
going back even conditionally on these measures simply creates a bigger
military vacuum for Iran to fill. At the same time, Iranian proxies are
undoubtedly spearheading most new offensives by government forces against IS
and at least some of the new weapons shipments intended for Iraqi security
forces are likely to end up in the hands of Iranian proxies.
One also hears calls for new U.S. engagement in Iraq, but there is no honesty
about the scale of commitment that would be required. If the goal is to
rebuild Iraq's conventional security forces as an alternative to the
militias, then the reality is that there will have to be tens of thousands of
ground troops, deployed for a number of years and not only willing to train
these new forces but coordinating with them in combat missions. Yet even such
a massive commitment—tried once before in recent memory—has no guarantee of
success. Such an approach is also politically unfeasible due to American war
weariness and scepticism of any mission with shifting goalposts. Further, a
large-scale American ground presence risks fuelling further support for IS,
the possibility of infiltration of rebuilt army brigades by the Iranian
proxies, and open warfare between the proxies and U.S. troops.
Notions that the U.S. should focus only on cultivating Kurdish and Sunni
allies are also unrealistic. Kurdish forces alone are unable to dislodge IS
from its main strongholds, and Sunni locals have good reason for concerns
about treatment at the hands of Kurdish forces.
The strategy employed during the last US war in Iraq, employing Sunni tribal
groups to lead the fight against IS, has its own problems.
With supposed Sunni allies, the biggest question remains of who is out there
for the U.S. to approach.
Sunni insurgent actors like the Ba'athist Naqshbandi Army find themselves
severely weakened, having lost out to IS in all major towns and cities
outside of government control. Local Sunni forces that are actively pushing
back against IS in Iraq's Anbar province are in fact already working with the
Iraqi government and the militias but have been unable to dislodge the group.
On the political axis, Sunni politicians are more lacking in credibility
among their constituents than ever.
Simply put, there are no viable 'third-way' Sunni actors who reject both the
government and IS.
Concern has been expressed that the U.S. 'risks' losing Iraq to Iran in the
fight against IS, but it is probably more accurate to say the U.S. has
already lost Iraq to Iran. No good options seem to exist, and the expansion
of Iran's sphere of influence may well have to be accepted as an inevitable
consequence of the original decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam's
regime from power.