General Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, provided, in Senate testimony today, some further insight into the thinking behind the U.S. decision to launch air strikes on Tikrit. He said that the decision was made at the request of Iraq’s prime minister Haidar al Abadi and that the U.S. was not supporting a Shiite militia assault—the Shiite militias have pulled back and the U.S. is only supporting Iraqi security forces. Further leaks suggest that some in the administration view this as a good opportunity to wean the Iraqis away from Iranian support and to show that the US can do what the Iranians couldn’t—i.e., help dislodge ISIS fighters from the a town they have held in the face of Iranian-directed attacks for the past month.
This may sound plausible in a Washington briefing room, but there are holes in this strategy big enough to drive an Iranian T-72 tank through. While it’s true that the Shiite militias appear to have pulled back a bit, they remain close to Tikrit. They were apparently pulling back anyway before the U.S. launched air strikes because of the mauling they have taken in heavy street fighting for which they were manifestly unprepared. Rumors suggest that the militias may have lost as many as 6,000 fighters out of a force of 20,000—staggering losses that would render the attacking force combat ineffective. That’s why in recent days there was word that the attackers would be “regrouping,” and cordoning off Tikrit rather than storming it, supposedly to spare civilian lives.
Problem is, U.S. airstrikes may well be bailing the Iranians and their proxies out of the jam they’re in. Assume that somehow the U.S. attacks dislodge the ISIS fighters. There are only an estimated 3,000 Iraqi troops in and around Tikrit (and many of them will also have affiliations with the Badr Organization or other militias, which makes it likely that many of their requests for air strikes will originate with the militia commanders). They will be in no position to clear, much less to hold, Tikrit by themselves. It’s a safe bet that the Shiite militias will then rush in and claim credit for a great victory over ISIS, arguing, as they are already doing, that U.S. airstrikes were not needed. Given the dismal human-rights record of Shiite militias in previous Sunni towns they have captured, it’s hard to know what would prevent them from abusing the population of Tikrit. And the U.S., having helped to rout ISIS, will then become morally and politically culpable for the crimes they commit.
It is a poor bargain, as I have previously argued, to rout ISIS out of Tikrit only to allow Iran’s proxies to occupy it. The U.S. would be better advised to stick to training and arming Sunni tribesmen to fight ISIS and doing what we can to oppose, rather than advance, Iranian designs.
The Saudi bombing of Yemen, designed to roll back the Iranian-supported Houthis, is a welcome sign of long overdue efforts to oppose the Iranian power grab in the region, and the Obama administration is to be commended for providing intelligence and other support for this operation—but of course this is a move being driven by Riyadh, not Washington. In fact General Austin said he learned of the Saudi bombing only shortly before it began.
Increasingly, with Washington seemingly tilting toward Tehran (a point I make in the Wall Street Journal today), our regional allies are going their own way. The coalition of Egypt and Saudi Arabia has already attacked Islamist radicals in Libya; now they are attacking Shiite radicals in Yemen. This is a sign of what the U.S. too should be doing in opposing the extremes of both the Shiite and Sunni sides—instead of appearing to tilt toward one side, the Iranian side, as we seem to be doing in Tikrit despite all the official protestations to the contrary.