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Tracking Islamic State

Iraqi forces help civilian families in Iraq's Anbar Province after they fled Fallujah during a major operation by pro-government forces to retake the city from Islamic State militants.

The fight against extremists from the Islamic State (IS) militant group is heating up on two fronts.

Since May 23, a coalition consisting of the Iraqi army and primarily Shi'ite militias, backed by U.S. air strikes, has advanced towards Fallujah, 40 kilometers west of Baghdad.

There are estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians remain in the city, and some residents told USA Today that IS fighters are using them as human shields.

"The Islamic State began moving families living in the outskirts to the center," resident Salem al Halbusi said by telephone. "They are locking some families down inside the hospital building," added al Halbusi, who did not want other information about him disclosed to protect his safety.

The civilian populace could slow Fallujah's liberators down, but those who have successfully fled the city told Reuters that the trapped population could starve before Islamic State is defeated, or be killed while they are trying to flee. Either way, all eyes will be on the coalition that the United States has helped build.

As David Patrikarakos wrote earlier this week for RFE/RL, even if the IS militants are defeated quickly in Fallujah, there is a risk that sectarian tension could be inflamed further in the process. Defeating IS militarily is just the first step toward healing Iraq's and Syria's sectarian wounds and ensuring that another, similar group does not emerge.

A similar pattern is playing out in the battle for Raqqa in northeastern Syria, the capital city for the self-declared Islamic State. As Wladimir van Wilgenburg explained earlier this month, efforts to defeat IS on the Syrian side of the border are being led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition that includes both Arab and Kurdish fighters. But while the SDF is diverse -- and becoming more so -- it is still dominated and led by the People's Protection Units (YPG), the fighting branch of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is closely associated with Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Escalation In Turkey

The problem with this is that the PKK -- which is designated as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Turkey -- is effectively at war with Turkey, a NATO ally and a major stakeholder in the outcome of the war in Syria. In April, U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby told the press corps that "YPG's not a designated foreign terrorist organization. PKK is. Nothing's changed about that."

Crucially, however, Turkey does not see a distinction between the PKK and the YPG. Neither do several experts whom RFE/RL consulted in researching this article. One source in territory controlled by the Kurds, who wished to remain anonymous due to security concerns, told RFE/RL that there is no doubt that the YPG reports directly to the PKK's guerrilla leadership.

A report by The Atlantic Council's Aaron Stein and Michelle Foley has established the link between the YPG and PKK, and Kurdish fighters have also confessed that the two are part of the same organization. That report suggests that Turkey was willing to tolerate the YPG as long as IS and the Kurdish group were fighting each other, but that tolerance has reached its end as the fighting between Turkey and the Kurds has heated up.

U.S. soldiers are supporting the YPG on the ground in Syria. Photos taken this week by an AFP photographer show U.S. Special Forces soldiers operating alongside Kurdish fighters near the front lines in Raqqa Province. Some of those soldiers are wearing patches of the YPG and their all-female battle unit the YPJ -- patches that, as Syrian expert Michael Weiss points out, are derived from the PKK's flag.

On May 27, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told journalists that "wearing an insignia of a terrorist organization by U.S. soldiers, who are our ally and are assertive about fighting against terrorism, is unacceptable. Our suggestion to them is that they should also wear Daesh [IS], al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda insignias during their operations in other regions of Syria. They can also wear the Boko Haram insignia when they go to Africa.”

Hours later, U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the U.S.-led coalition against IS, announced that the soldiers had been instructed to stop wearing the patches, a reversal from statements made by the military just the day before.

Images from the AFP news agency appear to show U.S. soldiers in Syria wearing the patches of local Kurdish fighters
Images from the AFP news agency appear to show U.S. soldiers in Syria wearing the patches of local Kurdish fighters

Fighting between the PKK and Turkey has escalated in recent weeks.

On May 13, a PKK fighter shot down a Turkish AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter with a Russian-made shoulder-fired SA-18 missile. Experts at The Aviationist and in Turkey said this was the first time the PKK has successfully used an antiaircraft weapon against a Turkish aircraft.

While the source operating in Kurdistan told RFE/RL that the PKK have had such weapons for some time, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War suggested that, while the weapon could have come from Syria or Iraq, "more likely that the PKK acquired the weapon from an external actor."

A likely candidate for supplying the weapon is Russia, which has seen its relationship with the Turkish government disintegrate since the Russian air campaign in Syria began last September. Tensions rose when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet in November following several warnings from Turkey that Russian jets were violating its airspace.

The idea that Russia -- or its allies in Syria and Iran -- could be arming the PKK has been amplified through the Turkish press. The Anadolu Agency has reported that, according to its sources, such efforts began sometime in December after the Russian jet was shot down. Regardless of whether this is true, such accusations could fuel a proxy war between Turkey and Russia, which could further inflame the region.

Pyrrhic Victory?

But which side of that proxy war does the United States take if its main allies in the fight against IS in Syria are the very fighters that Turkey says are waging war against them across the border?

In February, there were heavy clashes between YPG fighters in northwestern Syria and multiple rebel groups, which had been backed and trained by the CIA and Turkey. One now-infamous video showed a rebel group, Liwa' Suqour al-Jabal‎ (The Mountain Hawks Brigade), firing a U.S.-made TOW antitank missile into a YPG tank in the town of Azaz. This led some analysts to conclude that the United States was "in a proxy war with itself" in Syria since it supports some Syrian rebel groups and, via the SDF at least, the Kurdish YPG.

This has two potentially dangerous consequences. The first is that Turkey is a NATO ally that is already under immense pressure. Turkey has signaled that it feels abandoned, or even betrayed, by U.S. policy in Syria, a sentiment which could weaken the NATO alliance. But Turkey is also a Sunni state, and the Sunnis already feel that they have been the victims of U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria. Both of the major offensives against IS, in Syria and in Iraq, could further exacerbate this dynamic.

The sectarian tension between groups that the U.S. currently backs -- whether it's the Shi'ite/Sunni tensions in Iraq or the Kurdish/Sunni tensions in Syria -- should not be easily dismissed. One should remember that it was sectarian tension in both Iraq and Syria which gave rise to Islamist extremism and sectarian violence there, and the Islamic State militant group is just the newest and most radical incarnation of that tension. Victory over Islamic State is important, but if it weakens the NATO alliance or sets the stage for future sectarian conflicts, it could only be a Pyrrhic victory.

Iraqi Shi'ite fighters from a Popular Mobilization unit use mobile artillery near the city of Fallujah as part of an assault aimed at taking back the city of Fallujah from Islamic State.

The battle for Fallujah has begun. Late on May 23, Iraqi troops, comprising a combination of the government's Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and a combustible mix of Shi'ite militias, backed by U.S. air strikes, attacked the city, seeking to wrest it from the control of the extremist group Islamic State (IS).

Fallujah is one of the last remaining large cities under the Iraqi part of what IS calls its "caliphate." Lying only 65 kilometers from Baghdad, it is also of considerable strategic importance. An attack was inevitable. But its timing is interesting.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi needs a win. He is perceived as weak. Since taking over from Nouri al-Maliki, who fractured Iraq's already fragile political unity with his vicious sectarianism, Abadi has been unable to bring either political stability or security to Iraq. This is painfully highlighted by the recent spate of bombings in Baghdad -- the latest coming only last week,
when Sunni terrorists associated with IS killed at least 70 people in a largely Shi'ite district.

But there is a broader issue at work here. While the ISF has been taking the fight to IS, it is the Shi'ite militias -- notably those under the main umbrella group, Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi (The Popular Mobilization or PMU) -- that have dominated the fight against the terror group over the past couple of months or so, specifically the conflict around Fallujah.The infighting between the ISF and PMU is intense and some form of de-escalation is needed, but it's not clear whether this battle will help accomplish that or just make things worse.

Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland, uses the example of World War II's Operation Market Garden -- in which a mixture of British, American, Polish, and Dutch troops were parachuted into the Netherlands under the command of British General Bernard Montgomery, with U.S. Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton also taking a leading role.Like Market Garden, the battle for Fallujah features parallel command structures with a mix of troops on the ground. And the diversity of the fighting forces is not just a question of the ISF and the militias.

Iraq In Microcosm

The Shi'a militias themselves are far from homogeneous, with many overtly Iranian proxies like Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat al-Abdal and, most prominently of all, Kata'ib Hizballah in the field alongside militias like Firqat al-Abbas and Liwa Ali al-Akbar – which are loyal to Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Ali al-Sistani, who rejects Iranian influence in Iraq.

Iraq's other leading Shi'ite cleric is the infamous Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia, Saraya al-Sala'am, is also involved in the battle for Fallujah and has also fallen out with the Iranians. Perhaps no figure in Iraq is more synonymous with sectarian tension that Sadr, who in 2013 described Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Qasem Soleimani as "the most powerful man in Iraq."

According to Smyth, it's clear from open-source materials that it is the Iranian proxies calling the shots in the advance on Fallujah, but the other organizations do have a degree of independence. The result is, of course, a mess: it's Iraq in microcosm, with a seemingly endless number of sectarian groups with varying networks of external allegiances vying for control.

But there is a potential positive: When you have a mix of different, often opposed, forces then one way you can de-conflict these groups is through a concerted, combined campaign against a common enemy. While it failed to achieve its ultimate objective, Market Garden is an example of the coordination of such a mix of commanders and troops -- although they were not hostile to one another. The battle to take Fallujah is a strategic necessity but it's also an attempt to deal with the sectarian and logistical problems facing Iraq's armed forces.

And this problem will have to be dealt with. As much as the Iraqi government and Washington would love to rid themselves of the problem of the Shi'ite militias, they simply can't. The militias have proved to be one of the most effective 'pro-government' fighting groups on the ground -- far better than the ISF. In addition, they have infiltrated many government units and are also strongly present in the social and political spheres -- the militias have everything from popular songs to their own NGOs to members in the Iraqi parliament. They have built a diverse multitude of support bases within Iraq.

Beat Them Or Join Them

For the Iraqi government it's either beat them or join them; and it is not going to be able to beat them any time soon. But the fact that so many of these groups answer to the Iranians makes governing the country even harder.

Abadi and the United States badly need a win in Fallujah, but so do the militias. The ISF needs to show the Iraqi population that it is a strong national force -- it is not -- and Washington is desperate for them to prove this as well.

Meanwhile, the militias want to continue to demonstrate that they are in fact the forces that are saving Iraq from Islamic State. This is a narrative that the Iranians are also strongly pushing: it's good geopolitical propaganda for them across the Middle East. According to Smyth, the Iranian message is clear: "It's our proxies' forces that are defeating [IS]. The United States says it wants to fight IS but what has it really done? In fact it has an ulterior motive, and that is simply to get more Iraqis killed.”

Along with their fighting prowess, the Shi'ite militias bring with them their own sectarian baggage, which complicates the process of re-taking Fallujah – a staunchly Sunni city. The animus between Sunni and Shi'a, exacerbated by Maliki, has only increased due to the often brutal tactics of the militias towards their Sunni fellow Iraqis. When the militias retook Tikrit from IS late last year they deliberately set about destroying hundreds of homes and shops in the city as well reportedly abducting 200 Sunni residents -- 160 of whom still remain unaccounted for.

The Sunnis don't forget. Indeed, part of the reason that IS gained so much traction in Iraq in the first place is that the anti-Sunni policies of the Iraqi government and behavior of the Shi'ite militias drove many Sunni Iraqis into its arms.

The residents of Fallujah are trapped. Islamic State is using them as human shields against the air and ground attacks that began on May 23, but they also know that if Islamic State is defeated then what is coming may be almost as bad.

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About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.

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