Thursday, March 12, 2015

Iraqi Forces Enter Tikrit; Victory Looks Certain

Iraqi forces have Tikrit surrounded, after a week-long slog of clearing out bombs and snipers along the roads leading into the city.

They are entering the city from all sides now, attempting to squeeze out (and ideally eliminate during retreat) ISIS forces holed up inside. I believe at this point that victory is fairly inevitable, and that they'll move on next to clear ISIS forces currently combating government / Shiite troops in Baji. Expect the area below to become quite red after ISIS forces break.

The going will be slow now that they're in the city: ISIS predicted this was coming and scattered snipers and booby traps throughout the city, in the hopes of causing enough casualties to break the spirits of government troops.

(Twitter user @PetoLucem has a great chronological progression of government advances in Tikrit over the past few weeks, via Stratfor)

But it won't happen. The most important part of this offensive is that Iraqi forces do not break and run, and I suspect they won't. Iraq has hand-picked more reliable forces for this offensive, and the backing of very zealous Shiite militiamen and Iranian Quds forces is going to keep morale high as they demonstrate high morale and relative courage in the fighting. The total forces assaulting the city number a staggering 30,000, which likely outnumbers ISIS forces by about 10:1. There are just so many weapons pointed at ISIS forces that they will eventually get squeezed into defeat.

Expect the city to be cleared in 1-2 weeks as forces very slowly and carefully move house-to-house, hoping to minimize casualties. Baji will fall more quickly after that; it has many fewer ISIS fighters and government forces are already in the city, which will prevent the kind of entrenchment that ISIS was able to manage in Tikrit.

ISIS' days in Iraq are numbered, I think. Tikrit will be the victory the Iraqis need to build the morale and template for taking Mosul, which will allow them to turn their attention to Ramadi and Fallujah--those will be the hardest fights they have, but they'll have momentum on their side: Iraqi forces will inherit ISIS' air of inevitability.

ISIS' aura of inevitability and terror is starting to fizzle as they begin to lose to superior firepower, numbers, and training. That loss will hurt long-term recruiting, which means they'll actually be ground down to the point that they'll have to revert to asymmetric warfare (they set of 12 simultaneous car/suicide bombs in Ramadi and one bomb in Baghdad to try to disrupt the assault on Tikrit, for example). But because ISIS is claiming to be a caliphate, their authority erodes if they don't hold territory.

With victory coming, the most important factor in this advance is making sure that Shiite militiamen don't use this opportunity to carry out sectarian revenge killings. If they're able to keep their cool (and so far it's looking like they are, but the hard part will be after the main fighting ends) and leave Sunni civilians alone, the prospects for Fallujah and Ramadi will improve as Sunni civilians there begin to hope that government forces are a viable alternative to ISIS (they had previously probably helped ISIS to take hold there because they were so frustrated with Shiite rule in Iraq, but ISIS became more than they had bargained for).

Meanwhile, the Kurds in Syria continue a slow, steady slog towards the Tall Abyad border crossing with Turkey, which would close down a supply and reinforcement route (for foreign fighters) into Syria.

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