Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Battle Of Tikrit

A week of fighting between Iraqi army soldiers and Shiite militias against ISIS militants. Over 30,000 soldiers and militiamen backed by jets and helicopters launched a much-anticipated offensive against the ISIS forces currently in control of the city.
One major threat to ISIS is a Shiite-dominated Iraqi military backed by almost exclusively Shiite militias. Recently, these militias have swelled with thousands of new recruits after Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for Iraqis to take arms to defend their homeland. This force is being led, at least in part, by Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force. The Iranians have also backed the force with weapons, training, ammunition, and dozens of military advisors. ISIS, by contrast, is a mix of foreign fighters and disaffected Sunnis from across the region, fighting to maintain its gains in Iraq and its grasp on Sunni-dominated territory.
Tikrit holds serious strategic value to both sides. To successfully capture Mosul, the purported capital of ISIS, Iraqi forces must first reclaim the city of Tikrit. Doing so will put Iraqi forces within striking distance of Baiji, a strategic staging point from which to launch offensive operations on Mosul; it will also help secure lines of communication south to Baghdad and enable Iraqi forces to better cut off the movement of ISIS forces between the provinces of Anbar and Saladin. Success in Tikrit would provide a significant boost to the confidence of the Iraqi military, which will be critical given the tough fights that await them in Mosul and Fallujah. Correspondingly, losing Tikrit would also be a serious blow to the morale of ISIS forces and leadership; instead of growing across the Islamic world, the envisioned caliphate would be losing ground.

As the assault on Tikrit gets underway, the care and consideration for the safety of Sunni civilians will be key to the battle’s legacy. Major reprisal attacks and indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas will likely cause hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis to flee to Mosul, further complicating any future assault on the ISIS capital, and likely boosting the ranks of extremist group.

Without the safeguarding of Sunni civilians, the attack on Tikrit may have the unintended consequence of literally driving the Sunnis into the hands of ISIS; yet if done properly, it could be a huge step in defeating not only ISIS’ military prowess, but its guiding vision and the vision of its founder as well.