London, Asharq Al-Awsat—An American newspaper revealed details of the Pentagon’s plans for an Iraqi military counteroffensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Sunday.
The New York Times quoted a number of anonymous American and Iraqi officials, who said that the US was planning a “major spring offensive” in northern and western Iraq, aimed at forcing ISIS to retreat to a few major strongholds which could be recaptured by Iraqi forces.
The plan calls for US military advisors in Iraq to train thousands of Iraqi troops who, together with Kurdish Peshmerga, would advance into ISIS-held territory with the aim of severing the group’s fighters in Iraq from their comrades in Syria, cutting them off from reinforcements and supplies.
Planners anticipate that this will trap the group in the major urban centers it has captured, like the Iraqi city of Mosul, where it can be pinned down and destroyed.
The plan outlines the training of three Iraqi divisions of 8,000-12,000 troops each by 1,600 US military advisors and hundreds more from US allies like the UK, France and Australia, while the US-led anti-ISIS coalition also continues to provide air support for Iraqi forces.
However, officials also told the New York Times that more foreign advisors, including some from the US, may be necessary, though they would remain in an advisory role and would not be intended to take part in the fighting.
The plan also calls for fighters from Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes to be recruited to join in the fighting against ISIS, which has rode the wave of the Syrian revolution and sectarian tensions in Iraq to seize large parts of both states.
According to the New York Times report, the plan envisages Mosul and other key areas being returned to Iraqi government support by the end of 2015, but with some pockets of ISIS influence remaining, meaning a long-term counter-insurgency campaign would be necessary to finally stamp it out, which analysts say would also require substantial ‘buy-in’ from Iraqi Sunnis.
Experts say achieving both of these goals will mean resolving the issue of how to mobilize Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and reconciling many of the community’s grievances against the central government in Baghdad, led by Shi’ite Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and dominated largely by Shi’ite parties.
In a commentary published by UK-based defense think-tank RUSI at the end of September, Professor Gareth Stansfield of Exeter University—an expert on Iraq and its security issues—said: “If there is to be ‘boots on the ground’ in Iraq, they almost certainly need to be worn by Sunni Arabs,” and suggested that Mosul, once liberated from ISIS, be used as “a new center of gravity for Sunni Arabs” along the same lines as the autonomous Kurdish region set up after 1991.
“It would also be an ideal place to nurture a Sunni Arab force away from what would be the deeply suspicious eyes of Shi’a militias in Baghdad,” he said, adding “not only could the ‘boots on the ground’ be assembled; so too would the political and social space be discovered in which ISIS could be further undermined.”
However, he also warned that the entry of Iraqi government forces, together with Shi’ite militias accused of massacring Sunnis, into Sunni areas with the cooperation of local forces could damage efforts to combat ISIS.
According to the New York Times’s report, it is not clear how the Sunni fighters needed for the coming counteroffensive will be recruited and integrated into official Iraqi military efforts. One of the paper’s sources said that efforts to enlist Sunni Iraqis into efforts to combat ISIS would be “challenging.”
So far, efforts to do so have been dogged by sectarian tensions in Iraq, and the massacre of Sunnis who have taken up arms against ISIS by the group.
A separate plan to create an Iraqi ‘National Guard’ with units based in every province in Iraq has been mooted by US officials as a way to bring Sunni Arabs into the fight against ISIS, but legislation to create the new force has not been passed by the Iraqi parliament.