Kurdish peshmerga forces have launched a counteroffensive into areas north of Mosul, taking back several villages and securing Mosul Dam after protracted fighting throughout the weekend. The move follows three weeks of efforts by the peshmerga forces, backed by international support, to readjust their security presence to blunt several Islamic State incursions into Kurdistan Regional Government-held territory on several fronts, including a drive aimed at the region’s capital, Arbil. To the south of these operations, Iraqi forces working with Anbar tribal militias were able to reassert complete control over the city of Ramadi.
Both Iraqi and Kurdish security forces are beginning to reassert territorial control, but their success depends on support from foreign actors and/or Sunni tribal elements. As this drive continues, the Islamic State’s ground operations in Iraq will likely undergo notable reversals.
So far, U.S. airstrikes have been the most direct support for operations against the Islamic State. The United States conducted nine airstrikes on Aug. 16, 16 on Aug. 17 and 15 on Aug. 18 — a slight increase in the number of airstrikes per day seen previously — concentrating on the area near Mosul Dam to aid the peshmerga in regaining control of the dam. U.S. Central Command continues to cite humanitarian reasons for the airstrikes, noting that the Mosul Dam is key infrastructure and drastic humanitarian consequences could occur if the Islamic State sabotages it.
In addition to U.S. air support, several countries have agreed to send more weapons to Kurdish forces. At first, weaponry for the peshmerga was sent only through Baghdad to avoid the sensitive issues of sovereignty and oil disputes in the north inherent in arming the autonomous Kurds. As the Islamic State made further gains into the Kurdistan Regional Government’s territory, the United States — with Baghdad’s permission — began arming the Kurds directly. Soon afterwards, spurred by the humanitarian crisis near Sinjar, several other Western countries including the United Kingdom, Canada and France announced intentions to give the Kurds military support. This support has helped stabilize the Kurds’ military situation and seems to be slowly turning the tide against the Islamic State. However, this aid will also likely unsettle Baghdad as it gives the Kurds’ more military capability.
Iran Sends Limited Support
Moreover, unconfirmed reports emerged Aug. 16-17 in both English- and Arabic-language Iraqi press citing “an informed source” that claimed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force had moved troops and armored vehicles into Iraq’s northeastern Diyala province, where Kurdish peshmerga forces have struggled to manage increasing Sunni militancy. The original reports claim that Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps forces entered Iraq via the Kurdish bastion of Khanaqin, which is located only 7 miles (11 kilometers) from the Iranian border on a key north-south highway near one of the largest Iraqi-Iranian border crossings.
The incursion is reportedly meant to shore up peshmerga defenses around the Kurdish-majority city of Jalawla, where Islamic State militants and their Sunni allies recently forced fighters loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to withdraw. There has not yet been a noticeable shift in the battlefield around Jalawla, but any Iranian operation likely would still be in its early stages. Diyala remains one of the weakest links in peshmerga defenses, and the potential for increased Islamic State activity so close to the Iranian border is worrying for the leadership in Tehran.
Stratfor sources within the Iranian military apparatus were able to confirm that an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operation was indeed underway in the northern border area with Iraq. If the reports are true, such an operation would by necessity remain limited, with the immediate goal of assisting the peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (a group with which Iran retains close security ties) in regaining control of key population centers along the border and preventing jihadists from threatening the western regions of Iran. One source even claimed the operation was undertaken with implicit approval from Washington, which has similar interests in preventing a Kurdish collapse and containing Islamic State militancy. Other Stratfor sources in government and security positions in Iran have neither confirmed nor denied the allegations.
Iranian leaders are aware that if they push too far, they risk uniting the region’s Sunni Arab militants against Iranian security forces and collapsing the ongoing negotiations with Iraq’s Sunnis to reintegrate into Baghdad’s political system and turn against the Islamic State. The further Iran moves from Khanaqin, the deeper it moves into areas with sizable Sunni Arab populations and the more likely it will face a greater militant threat. Moreover, the Turks will watch events in Diyala cautiously and could consider building up their military presence in northern Iraq to counter potential Iranian advances.
Progress with the Sunnis
More important was the announcement that 20 to 30 tribes from the Sunni-majority Anbar province have decided to join the Iraqi military’s offensive against population centers controlled by Islamic State and Sunni Arab fighters. Tribal elements in Anbar proved key to containing al Qaeda activity in the late 2000s. This decision came even though Anbar’s tribes have been particularly resistant to accommodation with Baghdad recently — especially the Dulaym tribe, the largest in Iraq. In the past few months, Sunni Arab tribes in the north, such as the Obeidis and Jubouris, have made occasional announcements that they would confront Islamic State forces, but no action of this size and scope has been announced before. Over the course of three days, the Iraqi army and its newfound tribal allies have been able to challenge Islamic State fighters in territory stretching from Haditha in the northeast to the historically restive city of Ramadi, the latter of which fell under Baghdad’s control completely on Aug. 16 after months of siege.
The sudden breakthrough in Sunni-Baghdad cooperation is linked to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to step down on Aug. 14 — a minimum demand for Sunni Arab negotiators seeking greater autonomy in exchange for expelling foreign jihadists and entering the political community. Much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab leadership has reacted positively to the incoming prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. Moreover, there have been numerous exchanges between Sunni and Shiite political figures — including a meeting between Iran’s ambassador to Iraq and Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni leader and the head of the Muttahidoon Coalition, on Aug. 16. Yet these same Sunni leaders have been quick to point out that there are still gaps in the two sides’ negotiating positions. Ultimately, 20 to 30 tribes (especially in a province where they are dwarfed in size by the Dulaym tribe) is not a force large enough to launch an uprising against Iraq’s jihadists. However, the announcement represents a key step toward greater security cooperation in exchange for concessions from Baghdad.
Both Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have had recent victories on the battlefield against Islamic State fighters. Their success has been contingent upon the help of other forces, and if this trend continues both Baghdad and Arbil will continue to succeed in their territorial counteroffensives. However, the Islamic State is far from defeated. Its militants are capable, mobile, entrenched in several major cities and numerous small villages across a vast area, and still have Syria as further security. Thus the Iraqis’ and Kurds’ success against the Islamic State will be measured in reductions of the threat to the core Shiite and Kurdish territories but not its full elimination.