Several developments on the battlefield led the US to accelerate its steps in this direction. The significance of these developments lies not so much in the nature of the military achievements themselves but in their repercussions on the geostrategic equation in the region.
One might say that what happened on the ground in the past few weeks in Iraq was not originally linked to strategic goals. In the end, as the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) reached the outskirts of Baghdad, the Iraqi government and its allies did not have the luxury of long-term planning since it was necessary to stop the advance of the takfiris. Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, issued the “righteous jihad” religious edict. This led hundreds of thousands to volunteer in what came to be known as the “popular mobilization,” and a human dam made ISIS reach, what is known militarily as, the peak of its expansion.
Faced with this kind of reality, Baghdad and its friends had no choice but to act in accordance with the dictates of military rules. Stopping the ISIS advance was certainly in Baghdad’s interest. But it could have quickly turned against it had it failed in achieving two things: taking the initiative and breaking the myth of the unbeatable ISIS fighter. Fortifying loyalist areas by itself was not enough. It is true, it would have prevented the loss of more land to the takfiris but it would have also given them the opportunity to entrench their control in the areas they occupy. It is known that in such a situation people quickly adapt to the new reality and integrate themselves in its environment, especially that the milieu in question has the kind of political and social resentment and ideological commitment that would enable it to do so.
Hence we saw counter-attacks that have not subsided since. One of the objectives of these attacks was to break the stereotype of the ISIS fighter as that invincible warrior that everyone flees from as soon as he enters a certain area. A victory was achieved in Amirli, a besieged Shia city liberated at the height of ISIS’ victories and in Jurf al-Sakhar, a rebellious area – not just now but since the days of Saddam Hussein – who imposed a certain demographic reality in this city situated at the gate of southern Iraq and on the outskirts of Karbala. Even under US occupation, US forces did not enter Jurf al-Sakhar, but used it to blackmail whoever rebelled against their authority in the area. Then there was the liberation of Diyala (except the Jalawla area), the Great Dam and Baji.
Amid all these developments, it was clear that there were other objectives to what was going on. It was not by coincidence that pictures of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, a man who had rarely been heard from or seen, started appearing during every major battle. The insistence on waging major battles without air support by the so-called allied forces was not innocent. It was clear that, with the emergence of this suspect alliance, a decision was taken somewhere to demonstrate, with evidence, that the axis led by Iran is concerned with destroying ISIS, not this Western alliance. There were people who were convinced, as evidenced by the aid packages that were thrown from air to ISIS fighters at every military juncture, that the leaders of the alliance who had the honor of delivering and nurturing ISIS, wanted the group to serve as a tool to blackmail the Iraqi government and Iran. However, ISIS deviated from the path set for it when it hit the US’ most important allies in the region, Kurdistan and Saudi Arabia.
However, concerted effort was exerted to foil US plans to use ISIS as a tool to blackmail the Iraqi government and Iran, turning the takfiri card into a threat against US allies instead. When that objective was achieved, Iran became necessary for the US to drive the ISIS danger away from Washington’s friends. The US, however, will try to keep the ISIS card in its hand if it can help it, but this option includes a lot of risks that the US may not be able to control as evidenced by what happened in Erbil and Saudi Arabia.
On this basis, one can understand increased US interest in a military ground intervention in Iraq, accompanied by an increase in the official number of US forces in the country from 1,500 to 3,000. Physical presence has become necessary to prevent the other side from advancing and to achieve the basic goals of the alliance, namely, refashioning the political and military structures of the Iraqi regime to ensure the kind of balance that would restore US influence in a country whose occupation cost Washington $1.7 trillion but still left empty-handed in 2011.
It seems that the US is counting on a repeat of the 2007-2008 experiment when it tried to build a force parallel to the Iraqi army, spending more than $25 billion between 2005 and 2011. At the time, these forces were called the Awakening and were destroyed by Nouri al-Maliki after the departure of US troops from Iraq. Today, the US is hoping that the new experiment, which the Obama administration asked $5 billion from Congress to fund, will succeed. Out of the $5 billion, $1.6 billion are allocated for building what is now known as the provincial national guard, which Baghdad argues will lead to the division of Iraq.
On the other hand, the US attacks the popular mobilization forces which it wants to keep as a marginal faction within the Iraqi armed forces and prevent their leaders from participating in the military leadership’s meetings, while refusing to cooperate with them on the ground. (Fifty US advisors arrived at al-Asad base in western Iraq, which already has hundreds of popular mobilization fighters from Saraya al-Salam [the Peace Brigade] affiliated with the Sadr movement and from the Badr organization).
Finally, we should not neglect an important factor, namely, US-Iranian nuclear negotiations. If these negotiations lead to an agreement of some kind, it will have repercussions on their relationship inside Iraq where it is expected to become more harmonious. But even if no such agreement is reached, there is no doubt that the US and Iran are keen on avoiding a direct confrontation. The next few days will be decisive in this respect.