WASHINGTON: The crisis in Iraq, sparked by a lightning offensive from Sunni jihadists led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), finds heavily armed players on opposite sides.
But there is no clear military solution and the conflict risks dragging on, experts say.
o Can ISIS continue pushing toward Baghdad?
With 4,000 to 8,000 men, ISIS is “not an incredibly large organization, but it’s very well trained,” according to Rick Brennan, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who spent five years in Iraq as a U.S. military adviser.
For Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution, the fighters, who earned their stripes battling the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, are an “irregular army that does not rely on tanks or other mechanized forces to achieve victory, making it hard for air power to deal a decisive blow.”
Until now, ISIS has primarily made inroads in Sunni Arab areas, Byman noted, adding: “It will face a much tougher fight as it approaches Baghdad and the Shiite heartland.”
As the militants get closer to the capital, they will face tougher and tougher divisions of the Iraqi army.
“Those divisions are almost 100 percent Shiite, they’re loyal” to Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki, Brennan said. “Those organizations are in and around Baghdad, Baqouba and some portions of Diyala province.”
Brennan said the most likely scenario is that ISIS will start to target Shiite shrines – in Samarra, Najaf or Karbala – “with the explicit intent to reignite sectarian warfare.”
o Can Iraq’s army regain lost ground?
On paper, Iraq has a fearsome army: a budget of $17 billion (a 40 percent increase as compared with 2011), 193,000 men, more than 330 tanks, 3,700 armored troop carriers and 26 Mi-17 attack helicopters, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Baghdad is awaiting the delivery of 36 F-16 fighter jets and 24 Apache helicopters.
But somehow it all collapsed in the face of the ISIS onslaught.
“Around 60 of 243 Iraqi army combat battalions cannot be accounted for, and all of their equipment is lost,” said Michael Knights, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It will be a mammoth task to put these units back together and re-arm them.”
For Byman, “the size and strength of the Iraqi army is not the problem – it outmans and outguns ISIS by orders of magnitude. Rather, the Iraqi army’s problems involve leadership and morale.”
Five of its 14 divisions are not combat-ready. Why? The Sunni and Kurdish commanders were sacked, there is rampant corruption among officers, and there is a dire lack of training and maintenance.
Above all, the army is seen as the personal militia of Maliki, a Shiite loathed by Sunnis. Though security forces Thursday launched helicopter-borne assaults on Tikrit and the army can count on the help of Shiite militias, “it’s unlikely you’ll see significant advances made into Sunni dominated areas,” according to Brennan.
o What role can the Kurds play?
The Kurdish peshmerga forces – 35,000 of them integrated in the Iraqi army – are well trained and equipped by the United States and Russia. Another 80,000-240,000 fighters are at the disposal of Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
Positioned within striking distance of key ISIS strongholds, the Kurdish forces could play a “major role,” Knights said. But the question remains: Will they agree to work with Maliki?
o Will the U.S. launch airstrikes?
U.S. President Barack Obama has not ruled out airstrikes but has asked Maliki to offer signs of political openness. With ships positioned in the Gulf, Washington could easily launch Tomahawk missiles and airstrikes from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush or from drones.
But for now, Washington has sent 300 military advisers to help the Iraq army and has carried out surveillance flights over Iraqi territory.
Byman says airstrikes “must be sustained to have a strategic effect” and would have to be carried out in coordination with advances on the ground. But so far, Obama’s condition has not been met. And ISIS fighters would likely adapt by mixing in with the civilian population, making airstrikes even more complicated.
o Will Iran get involved?
Tehran, which is close to the Maliki government, has reportedly deployed surveillance drones to the Al Rashid airfield near Baghdad and is sending military equipment to Iraq on a daily basis by air.
But Brennan said he does not believe Iran will get involved on any major scale. “It would be a very high risk thing for the Iranians.”
“They would have to be willing to be in Sunni areas, and if they are willing to do that, you’re likely to see a bloodbath.”