Events are moving quickly in the Middle East, and much has changed since the last blog post on Iraq over a week ago. During that time, ISIS has been engaged in multiple fronts across Iraq. It continues to battle the Iraqi army, Shiite militias, and the Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga in the north. The press has been focused on the threat posed by ISIS to Erbil after dramatic events in the north, but it is likely that more significant ISIS progress will be made further to the south and west of Iraq, in places like Baiji, Tikrit and Haditha.
Early in August, ISIS made significant progress against the Kurdish peshmerga, seizing the country’s largest dam north of Mosul, advancing toward the Kurdish de facto capital of Erbil across the Ninewa Plains, and routing the peshmerga from an area to the west of Mosul housing the town of Sinjar.
The last of these advances drew the attention of the international press to the plight of the Yazidi people. Tens of thousands were forced to run from their homes to escape ISIS and are now trapped on mountain slopes north of Sinjar. Press coverage has also increased as ISIS forces advanced toward Erbil, which houses part of Iraq’s oil industry and many thousands of refugees who have fled ISIS from across Iraq and Syria.
These events led the U.S. to intervene: On August 7, President Obama authorized air strikes to protect the Yazidi refugees, as well as U.S. infrastructure and personnel in both Erbil and Baghdad. The U.S. and other allied nations are also now re-arming the Kurdish peshmerga with modern equipment and weapons, to help them combat the well-armed ISIS forces. ISIS has become one of the better-armed groups in the region after seizing Mosul where U.S. materiel given to the Iraqi army had been stored.
While it may appear that ISIS has resolved to conquer Kurdish areas, in fact conquering Kurdistan is unlikely to be a major near-term ISIS goal; these actions may be more a result of ISIS tactics than strategy. ISIS so far has been most successful when advancing into disaffected Sunni-majority areas in the Iraqi river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates. But ISIS cannot advance freely along the Tigris river valley if the peshmerga — a large and well-organized force — are free to intervene from the north.
To counter this risk, ISIS appears to have adopted a strategy of placing pressure on the peshmerga across a very wide geographic area, in order to stretch peshmerga forces out and pin them down in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region. For several months, ISIS has engaged in a battle with Kurdish peshmerga across a very large area — around 600 miles along the border of the autonomous Kurdish region. (The conflict stretches into Syria, where ISIS has also fought with separate Syrian Kurdish forces.) Posing a threat to Erbil is another way to concentrate the peshmerga away from mixed Sunni areas such as the Diyala region north of Baghdad where ISIS progress is more realistic. Indeed, even in the last day or two, there has been fierce fighting between ISIS, the Iraqi army, and peshmerga, over the town of Jalawla in the Diyala region. With its oil resources, mixed Sunni-population, and because it has a lighter peshmerga defense structure than Erbil, Kirkuk may be an eventual target for ISIS if the peshmerga are sufficiently diffused.
In conclusion, barring a military disaster, Iraqi Kurdistan is unlikely to be overrun. But the rest of Iraq is not similarly protected, and much of the country, particularly in the river valleys between the north and Baghdad, remains at real risk. This risk is exacerbated by the potential for divisive internal fighting among Iraqi groups. If the limited U.S. air strikes do not halt the advance of ISIS, then the question for the Obama Administration will be whether they should be increased.