America’s Precarious Balancing Act vs. ISIS in Iraq, Syria
In battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, The White House, Pentagon, and the US command in the Middle East face a dilemma. While resolved to root ISIS out of its main strongholds, Fallujah in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, US strategic planners are loath to allow the pro-Iranian local forces spearheading the battles to surge into these cities and take over.
There are 50,000 to 75,000 civilians in Fallujah, almost all Sunni Muslims. So, too, are most of the roughly 300,000 civilians living in Raqqa. In the past few days, it became clear that the only two forces able to retake them from the Islamists are Shiite troops under Iranian command.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is holding back from ordering the Iraqi army to go in and take Fallujah, although two pro-Iranian Shiite militias, the People’s Mobilization (PMU) led by Abu Mahdi al Muhandis and the Badr Force led by Hadi al-Ameri, have recovered 620 sq. km of the 750 sq. km snatched by ISIS.
Al-Abadi fears the Iraqi Army is not up to the task of dislodging the ISIS resistance pockets buried in the local populace. But, as he dithers, al Muhandis and al-Ameri threaten to seize the initiative and order their militias to move into the city.
Neither al Abadi nor the Americans want another major Sunni city in Iraq to fall into Shiite hands, following the aftermath of Tikrit’s liberation from ISIS in April 2015, when hundreds of Sunni homes and buildings were looted, torched and blown up by the Shiite conquerors.
The Americans are also deeply reluctant to let Shiite militias use Fallujah as a stepping-stone for free access to the Euphrates Valley and Syria.
Indeed, Al Muhandis says openly in interviews to Iranian media that after taking Fallujah, he will order his forces to move west and cross the border into southern Syria.
The PMU’s entrance into Syria would throw the volatile balance of power in the country completely askew. Syria’s President Bashar Assad would gain an alternative prop to the Russian military on which he now leans. To guard against this eventuality, DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Washington and Moscow report that President Barack Obama has ordered steps toward US military coordination with the Russians in Syria, so that the
US does not lose its grip on developments in the Syrian war.
Washington faces a further setback in the two current military campaigns against ISIS in Syria at Manbij and Raqqa. There are 100,000 citizens in Manjib, a city strategically located north of Aleppo and the Euphrates River and only 10km from the Iraqi border.
From Manjib, the terror organization holds sway over the entire region from the border to Aleppo. The US had strongly counted on the rebel Syria Democratic Forces-SDF and the powerful Kurdish YPG militia to rip ISIS out of the city, with the cover of US aircraft and Turkish artillery. However, despite the American investment of effort and money in assembling this force, its performance is disappointing, and ISIS fighters are slowing its advance with counter-attacks.
This has proved a grave setback to US plans for sending the same force on to besiege Raqqa after liberating Manjib. Now, after months of preparation, Washington finds itself without a credible military force for its campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria.