Iraq: Momentary Gains for a Jihadist Group

 

Video Transcript:

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham, ISIS, an al Qaeda-related group that is a principal extremist actor in the Syrian civil war and ongoing Iraqi insurgency, seized parts of Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq on Jan. 3. Rather than viewing this as a fundamental power shift between ISIS and Baghdad’s security forces, however, it should be seen as a temporary victory.
Tensions between Baghdad and the Sunni tribes of Anbar province have been simmering through most of last year and boiled over on Dec. 30 when President Maliki ordered a Sunni protest camp to be dismantled by security forces. The arrest of a local senior Sunni politician led to clashes severe enough to prompt Maliki to withdraw security forces from the region in an effort to de-escalate the situation. It was this security vacuum that ISIS used to seize territory in both cities.
It is one thing to grab territory, especially if it is predominantly uncontested, and quite another to hold it against a concerted military operation mounted by the Iraqi security forces. Sources in Iraq claim that roughly 300 ISIS fighters remain in Ramadi while 800 or so are entrenched in Fallujah. While the urban terrain will give ISIS fighters a serious combat boost as the established defenders against the better equipped Iraqi security forces, they won’t have the numbers or ability to hold indefinitely.
ISIS survives in Iraq by being an insurgent group, avoiding direct confrontation and hiding and moving through the population. This territory grab in Ramadi and Fallujah gives them an address, alleviating the Iraqi security forces of one of their most difficult missions of just finding ISIS. Now they can actually concentrate force, and if executed correctly, degrade sizable chunks of combat power in detail.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops and their allies at the end of 2011 and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war next door has given ISIS the ability to rebound into a capable regional actor, but at the same time their aggressiveness has them overcommitted, outgunned and alienated on multiple fronts. Other rebel groups in Syria have started serious infighting with ISIS recently after they became disillusioned with their actions and have attacked several units despite the advantage this gives to the Assad regime.
This leaves the recent Fallujah and Ramadi seizures likely to be temporary at best. The only serious complicating factor for the Iraqi security forces is moderating their use of force so as not to antagonize the Sunni tribes further. While these tribes might covertly support ISIS or turn a blind eye to their actions against the Maliki government, they do not want to be drawn into an open civil war. Many of the tribes in Anbar have already come out in support of the government forces, with just a few throwing their lot in with ISIS.
ISIS’s ultimate goal is to destabilize Iraq to the point where they can accomplish their ultimate aim of a regional Islamic Emirate. They can only accomplish this if they can unite a sizable portion of the Sunni population into a sectarian civil war through their own actions or by provoking the Shiite government into actions that accomplish the same. Without this, they will come up short.

Turkey: Will Combat Terrorists But Focus On Removing Al Assad, President Says

Turkey: Will Combat Terrorists But Focus On Removing Al Assad, President Says

October 1, 2014 | 1341 GMT

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Oct. 1 that Turkey will combat Islamic State militants and other regional terrorist groups but will adhere to the goal of removing Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Daily Star reported. So far Turkey has remained out of the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, but parliament will hold a debate Oct. 2 to determine the country’s involvement.

 

Turkey: Parliament To Discuss Sending Troops To Iraq And Syria

Turkey: Parliament To Discuss Sending Troops To Iraq And Syria

September 30, 2014 | 1210 GMT


The Turkish government will be discussing whether to send troops to Iraq and Syria and may pass a resolution before the Oct. 4 Eid Al-Fitr holiday, Speaker of the Turkish Grand National Assembly Cemil Cicek said, The Daily Sabah reported Sept. 30. Turkey has a vested interest in combatting the Islamic State but has been reluctant to join U.S. efforts in the region.

U.S.: Division Headquarters Will Deploy To Iraq Soon

U.S.: Division Headquarters Will Deploy To Iraq Soon

September 24, 2014 | 1134 GMT


The U.S. army is preparing to deploy a division headquarters to Iraq, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said, Army Times reported Sept. 24. Division headquarters are composed of 100 to 500 soldiers, and that deployed to Iraq will be responsible for coordinating the efforts of the 1,600 troops that have been sent to the country for advising and assisting the Iraqi Security Forces. It will also provide extra security, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

Fox News – US, Arab allies launch first wave of strikes in Syria

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Airstrikes in Syria Will Weaken, Not Destroy Militants

 

Summary

A salvo of 47 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles, fired from U.S. destroyers in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, preceded United States-led airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, Sept. 22. The initial operation was conducted without a Western ally, although heavily supported by allied Arab air force assets, reportedly from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar — composing the largest combined Arab mission since the first Persian Gulf War. Shortly after the operation began, Israel downed a Syrian Sukhoi Su-24 jet fighter which it alleged violated its airspace over the Golan Heights. It was not clear if the shooting down of the jet, by an Israeli Patriot missile, was coordinated in any way with the U.S. strikes on Syria.

Analysis

Operationally, the participation of numerous Gulf Arab countries (especially Jordan) greatly relieves the U.S. effort in Syria. Turkey has been largely unwilling to commit forces or to allow the United States access to its air bases for manned combat operations over Syria, limiting the United States to its air bases around the Persian Gulf. The active participation of Jordan allows for the potential use of forward operating bases on the Syrian border, the staging of combat search and rescue assets required to rescue pilots having ejected over Syria, and secondary airfields for landing aircraft with mechanical problems en route from their bases in the Persian Gulf. The active participation of a number of Arab countries with a total inventory of hundreds of advanced aircraft also enhances the overall capacity of the force amassed against the Islamic State.

 

Image: Air Base Locations of Core Coalition Countries

The United States insists that no permission was sought from the Syrian regime for the airstrikes. In an attempt to avoid hostility between Syrian regime air defense assets and coalition aircraft, however, the United States has very likely initiated what is referred to as a de-conflicting process, in which prior warning would have been given to the regime in Damascus. In fact, Syrian state media reported shortly after the strikes began that warning of the attacks had been given to Syria’s permanent envoy to the United Nations.

The de-conflicting process will be significantly aided by the fact that the bulk of the Islamic State presence in Syria is located away from core regime positions in the west of the country. This ensures minimal contact between regime air defense assets and coalition aircraft, while the availability of airbases in Jordan and the Persian Gulf allows forces to avoid transit routes from the Mediterranean across heavy air defense zones in western Syria. The United States and its allies will be monitoring Syrian military forces very carefully, especially given the high tempo of Syrian air operations over eastern Syria in the last few months. For operations too close to regime surface-to-air missile batteries, the United States could elect to rely on more survivable stealth aircraft such as the F-22, which are reportedly already engaged in the Syrian strikes. If the United States makes such a choice, it will be the first time the F-22 Raptor is used operationally in a ground attack role.

 

Setting the Conditions

While not amounting to a full-scale “shock and awe” campaign such as those waged during the Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War, the first wave of airstrikes occurred almost simultaneously across multiple points in Syria in order to maximize the effect of tactical surprise. The bulk of the air and missile strikes appeared to be concentrated in and around the city of Raqqa, which is the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital. Targets were hit across the country included Aleppo, Hassakah, Deir el-Zour and Abu Kamal. Scores of Jihadist positions were engaged, including command headquarters, supply depots, training camps, armed vehicles, supply trucks, former army bases seized by the group and logistical hubs close to the Iraqi border.

 

Image: Concentration of Activity by the Islamic State

In an interesting expansion of the U.S. campaign against Jihadists in the Middle East, coalition aircraft reportedly also struck facilities used by a non-Islamic State affiliated jihadist group in Syria known as the Khorasan group. The group is reportedly led by Muhsin al-Fadhli and is directly linked to the al Qaeda core in Pakistan.

For weeks prior to the current airstrikes, the United States had been constantly flying intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance flights over Syria, mapping out the militant group’s layout, structure and capabilities. These reconnaissance flights would have been critical in drawing up a list of potential Islamic State sites from which current targets could be allocated.

 

Video: Conversation: Containing vs. Destroying the Islamic State

While air and missile strikes alone will not destroy or even comprehensively degrade the Islamic State in Syria, they will seriously degrade its ability to mass forces for offensive operations, hurt its financing and logistical efforts and aid local anti-Islamic State forces in their attacks against the group. Ultimately, the Islamic State will increasingly find itself on the defensive in Syria, especially as it receives pressure from multiple directions and its many enemies in Syria and Iraq. For the group to be defeated, however, a more comprehensive effort that extends beyond air power is needed. Local Sunni forces in Islamic State territory would need to turn against the group; the Islamic State’s resupply networks — including manpower and finances — would need to be shut off and indigenous forces, whether Syrian rebels in Syria or peshmerga and Iraqi forces in Iraq, would need to advance to reclaim territory from the group.

Syria: U.S. Will Continue Airstrikes

Syria: U.S. Will Continue Airstrikes 

September 23, 2014 | 1401 GMT


Anonymous U.S. officials have said the United States will continue its airstrike campaign in Syria, Reuters reported Sept. 23. On Sept. 22, the United States led an Arab air force coalition against the Islamic State in Syria. The operation reportedly killed at least 70 Islamic State militants. U.S. President Barack Obama is set to address the situation at 10:00 a.m. ET.

Tensions Threaten Iraqi Kurdistan’s Fragile Stability

Tensions Threaten Iraqi Kurdistan’s Fragile Stability

September 17, 2014 | 0051 GMT

 

 

Analysis

A rumor is circulating in Kurdish media that Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party has unilaterally decided to terminate its alliance with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Originating in an Arbil-based BasNews report citing unnamed sources close to Barzani’s party, the rumor has not been confirmed. However, tensions between the parties are already obvious. Internal complications are growing and Iran and Turkey are vying for influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, returning the Kurdish factions to a familiar state of rivalry.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party was founded in 1946. Barzani’s father, Mustafa, led the party from 1949 to 1979, and the younger Barzani has served as the party’s president ever since. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was founded in 1976. Jalal Talabani, the former Iraqi prime minister, leads the party and was one of its founding members. The Talabanis and Barzanis, based in Sulaimaniyah and Arbil, respectively, are two of Iraqi Kurdistan’s preeminent families. Their competition for leadership of Iraq’s Kurdish population reflects the linguistic and cultural divisions still present in Iraqi Kurdistan and has provided ample opportunities for neighboring Turkey and Iran to back different sides of this ongoing rift.

What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman Explains.

Realizing Iraqi Kurdistan’s energy potential, the unique opportunity afforded by having an (albeit temporary) U.S. shield in Iraq and the danger of returning to the level of competition that pitted the parties against each other in a civil war just a decade earlier, the parties signed a power-sharing agreement in 2005. However, Stratfor has regarded this period of Kurdish unity as highly anomalous. Amid growing internal and external pressures, it became inevitable that the Kurdish fault line would not only become active again but also threaten the unity that many energy investors and outside observers have taken for granted.

Reasons for the Split

Several factors are behind the widening split. First, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is undergoing a leadership crisis in the absence of Talabani, its ailing leader, just as the Goran movement is on the rise at the expense of Talabani’s party, in part because of the quiet support of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. Next, an economic crisis is growing in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Islamic State is creating a security crisis in the region. Finally, Iraqi Kurdistan is feeling the effects of the growing regional competition between Turkey, which is aligned with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Iran, which has a closer relationship with both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Goran movement.

All these issues have intensified greatly in recent weeks. Fuel shortages in the region have driven protests throughout Iraqi Kurdistan — protests that both factions accuse the other of encouraging. Militant control and sabotage of major refineries are exacerbating the shortages, but so is high-level corruption in which political officials make more money smuggling crude oil across the border to Iran than refining and selling subsidized fuel to Kurdish consumers.

Furthermore, the Kurdistan Democratic Party has maintained a hard line in negotiations with Baghdad, despite the economic pain caused by the central government’s failure to provide its $1 billion monthly budget allocation to Iraqi Kurdistan. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan officials have publicly criticized the Barzani faction’s policies, which advocate an independent Kurdistan under Turkey’s shadow, appealing instead for a more pragmatic approach with Baghdad.

On the security front, the divisions run just as deep. The peshmerga, also split between the two parties despite nominally answering to Barzani as commander-in-chief, has been feuding over failures and successes in its fight against the Islamic State. When peshmerga forces filled a security vacuum in oil-rich Kirkuk in June, the Barzani and Talabani parties fought over whose peshmerga forces would secure the oil formations. Such infighting will only intensify if Kirkuk continues to destabilize in the coming weeks and months. Both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party want to ensure they can keep a tight grip over Kirkuk’s oil (and smuggling schemes). Meanwhile, Kirkuk Gov. Najmaddin Karim is entertaining proposals to make Kirkuk its own autonomous region.

The Split Beyond Iraqi Kurdistan

The parties’ rivalry is also a function of Iranian-Turkish competition in the region. Iran and its Shiite representatives in Baghdad are already coordinating with peshmerga and officials from both parties, making clear that security cooperation against the Islamic State comes with a price: Working with Baghdad means ending the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Turkish-backed bid for energy independence and renegotiating the status of Kirkuk in the disputed territories. With the Barzani and Talabani parties moving in opposite directions on this policy, and with the Goran movement easily played by multiple sides, distrust between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan will naturally deepen.

Even if the Kurdistan Regional Government tries to gloss over these rumors and reassure investors that a formal split is not underway, the divisions are already apparent and growing. This will have significant implications for security in the region, even as the United States struggles to patch together a coalition of local ground forces to support its air campaign against the Islamic State. For those energy firms that have ventured into Iraqi Kurdistan’s disputed regions, such as Kirkuk, the complications in operations will only increase as the Barzani and Talabani factions compete for control of resources. Meanwhile, Turkey, Iran, Baghdad and even local jihadists can be expected to exploit the Kurdish rift as all parties seek to limit Kurdish autonomy while competing on multiple levels. 

Video: Vietnam’s Geographic Challenge

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Vietnam’s Geographic Challenge 

September 18, 2014 | 2050 GMT

 

Vietnam's Geographic Challenge
Stratfor examines Vietnam’s struggle to unite its dual cores and preserve geographic buffer space against China.

 

Video Transcript

Vietnam is located on the easternmost edge of the Indochinese Peninsula, with China to the north and Laos and Cambodia to the west. Its more than 2,000 mile-long coastline abuts the Gulf of Tonkin, the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. These seas create both direct access to the wider Pacific Ocean and a critical buffer to Vietnam’s long and narrow land territory.

Modern Vietnam consists of two geographic and population cores – the Red River Delta in the north, home to the capital of Hanoi, and the Mekong River Delta in the southern lowlands, where Ho Chi Minh City sits.  These cores are separated by over 1,600 miles and connected by a thin and largely mountainous coastal spine, only around 30 miles wide at its narrowest point.

Despite mountains and jungles, the northern Vietnamese core has a long history of invasion by forces from China. This almost continuous pressure from the north in part forced Vietnam’s early rulers to expand the country’s boundaries, first southward, to the Mekong River Delta, and then westward, into present day Laos and Cambodia.

Historically and today, the natural geographic separation of Vietnam’s northern and southern cores has exacerbated the two regions’ social, cultural and political divide – leaving the country vulnerable to invasion by foreign powers, whether Chinese, French or American.

Vietnam’s primary geographic challenge is to secure buffer space both on land and sea. Today, Vietnam’s need for space and security in the South China Seas pits it against China, also in the throes of maritime expansion, thus adding a new dimension to Vietnam’s longstanding struggle to carve space for itself against its larger northern neighbor.

Iraq: Obama Reaffirms No Combat Troops To Iraq

Iraq: Obama Reaffirms No Combat Troops To Iraq

September 17, 2014 | 1940 GMT


U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed his stance against sending combat troops to fight Islamic State militants in Iraq in a Sept. 17 speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa Bay, Fla., The Tampa Bay Times reported. President Obama said that the United States will rely on contributions from allies in the region and now has a coalition of over 40 countries offering support. 

Iraq’s New Government Must Unify to Defeat the Islamic State

 

Iraq’s New Government Must Unify to Defeat the Islamic State

September 10, 2014 | 0111 GMT
The formation of a new government in Baghdad on Sept. 8 is an important first step toward dealing with the Islamic State transnational jihadist movement. In sharp contrast to the post-Baathist Cabinets formed in 2006 and 2010, only four months have elapsed since parliamentary elections took place. More significant, the new government was formed against the backdrop of a major offensive by a unified militant force, a threat that far eclipses the 2003-07 Sunni insurgency.
The menace of the Islamic State provided the impetus for Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni political principals, and their respective international patrons, to agree on a new government, although the interior, defense and national security ministries have yet to be decided. There are some notable changes in the composition of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s new Cabinet, not least of which is the appointment of former Premier Nouri al-Maliki to the presidential council, holding the Shiite post of vice president. Outgoing parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi assumed the vice presidential position assigned to the Sunnis. Interestingly, Iraq’s Kurdish president, Fouad Massoum, chose to accept three vice presidents rather than two as part of a factional agreement. Former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and centrist politician supported by the country’s Sunni minority, came on as the additional vice president.
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman Explains.
Another key change in the Cabinet was the removal of the Foreign Ministry portfolio from Kurdish favor, appointing instead Ibrahim Jaafari, a prominent Shiite politician and close ally to Iran. Outgoing Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari assumed the deputy prime minister post reserved for the Kurds, while noted Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq retained the Sunni deputy premiership. In a similar move to the expanded vice presidency, the Shia gained a deputy prime minister post that went to Baha al-Araji, a major gain for maverick Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose affiliates typically hold less important portfolios.

Kurdish Concessions

Iraq’s Kurds were able to gain two additional concessions in the new Cabinet. First, Adel Abdul-Mahdi of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq replaced Abdul-Kareem Luaibi Bahedh as deputy prime minister for energy affairs. The new oil minister is not only close to Tehran but enjoys close ties with the Kurds, a relationship Arbil hopes will facilitate future negotiations over the chronic issue of energy exports and revenue sharing. The Kurds also gained a key position in the Finance Ministry with the appointment of Rose Nuri Shaways, who has held a variety of top positions in the federal and regional government.
Not everyone did so well: Hussain al-Shahristani, a controversial associate of al-Maliki, was demoted to minister of higher education and scientific research while his previous post as deputy prime minister for energy affairs was disbanded. Al-Shahristani faced deep opposition from the ethnic minority community because of a long-standing dispute over control of energy resources between the central government and the Kurds.
While the central government said it would resume fund transfers to the Kurdistan Regional Government, the two sides are unlikely to resolve their core energy disagreements anytime soon, especially considering the Kurds’ attempts to export their own oil and control their own energy revenues. Regardless of who is energy minister, Baghdad will continue its efforts to undermine the Kurdistan Regional Government’s energy policies, as well as its prominence in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Enduring Tensions

Despite achieving a basic framework for a government in which the Sunni community has been integrated, getting key Sunni elements to turn against the Islamic State will be difficult. The Sunnis are wary after being persecuted at the hands of al-Maliki, despite a 2007 agreement promising to make them stakeholders in Baghdad.
With al-Maliki still in the presidential council and wielding influence through the civil and military bureaucracies, bringing the Sunnis back into the system will be extremely difficult. The tribal and ex-Baathist core that is attempting to leverage Islamic State aggression will not sell out the transnational jihadist movement without exacting a high price. It hopes to gain a share of the political and security landscape, but more important, it wants a cut of the oil. It is precisely here that Kirkuk becomes a thorny issue: The Sunnis want a major share of the oil fields, and the subject is already a source of tension in the dispute between Baghdad and Arbil over energy resources.
On the security front, the Islamic State-led Sunni uprising will make the finalization of the Iraqi government’s security ministries difficult. The Shia are wary of the Sunnis retaining control of the defense portfolio, while the Sunnis are concerned that the Interior Ministry will go to a person like Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization and successor to the Badr Brigades. Al-Ameri is very close to the head of the overseas operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, at a time when Iran and the Iraqi Shia are employing Shiite militias in the fight against the Islamic State. The matter of who controls the National Security Ministry, which serves as a secondary intelligence service in the hands of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi polity, also has to be resolved.
Through no small endeavor, the Iraqi government is almost in place, but there are significant issues that have the potential to inhibit international efforts to counter the Islamic State. A unified Iraqi government, able and willing to cooperate with foreign powers, offers the best chance to defeat the Islamic State. Unfortunately, this is why the transnational jihadist movement will be exploiting any opportunity to undermine Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish cohesion at the parliamentary level and beyond.