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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Islamic State Weakesses Exposed In Iraq; Netanyahu Struggling To Get Electoral Traction

Links: A. Islamic State Losses Mount In Iraq
           B. Netanyahu Facing Difficult Election

The Obama Administration and the governments in Tehran and Baghdad have reason to breathe a long sigh of relief.  It seems as if only yesterday, the Islamic State (IS) was aggressively expanding its military presence, to include Diyala Province and the Shi'a holy cities in central and southern Iraq.  The allied air campaign appeared to have little impact against an enemy that was comfortable using the weather forecast in its operational planning, and the Iranian government was faced with increased international attention because of intended diplomatic discussions with the Obama Administration regarding its Nuclear Program.  The IS was threatening Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) positions in the west, and U.S. instructors and advisors at the al-Asad Air Base, after overrunning the nearby town of al-Baghdadi.  Roughly four weeks later, the ISF has successfully conducted a multi-faceted operation to retake Saddam Hussein's home of Tikrit, The Peshmerga are consolidating their control over important communities in northwest Iraq, and operations outside of Kirkuk might demonstrate a level of cooperation between the Peshmerga, the ISF, and local militia that has yet to be noted.  Last year, the Kirkuk government had expressed opposition to federal forces (ISF) operating in the province.  If the hardline position taken by authorities in Kirkuk has been reversed, it would be significant, as the IS would be forced to defend against a united enemy, as opposed to three separate, smaller opponents, each with their own focus and agenda.

The string of recent IS losses point to an opponent that has become better funded, equipped and motivated.  There was some concern that regular Iranian forces would be obliged to enter the conflict, especially if the IS had been able to consolidate its operations in Diyala Province.  But the IS has adopted a defensive posture in much of Iraq, as its units were over-extended in numerous locations, and unable to find adequate supplies or food.  It should be noted, however, that the structure of the IS allows it to continue aggressive offensive operations in Ramadi and Fallujah, while pulling back in Tikrit and Kirkuk.  It took some time and a few desperate engagements, but the ISF and its surrogate Shi'a militia partners have started to function much more like a single unit, which increases the impact of offensive operations.  If you include the Peshmerga and local anti-IS Sunni militia in the mix, and the IS is in real danger of being swept up in north central Iraq.  The existence of an effective support network has proven invaluable for the ISF and the Peshmerga, and the lack of has been crippling for IS forces.  If the ISF and Peshmerga successfully continue their campaign to push the IS out of the areas of Erbil, Mosul, Baiji and Kirkuk, then we will be returning almost exclusively to the still-familiar battlefields of 2007-2008: Ramadi and Fallujah.  It will be interesting to observe what lessons the IS has learned from the battle of Fallujah between insurgents and the U.S. military, and also if the ISF will follow the same strategy that eventually won the day for U.S. and Iraqi government forces.

Iranian Diplomacy and the Issue of Iraq: recent positive developments on the battlefields of Iraq have given the Iranian government a bit more breathing room.  The announcement last month by the Obama Administration of an effort to engage the Iranian government directly and address the nuclear issue, increased the pressure on the government in Tehran to avoid the appearance of aggressive, unwelcome military operations in Iraq.  Tehran has been able to support the Iraqi government (and military) with advisors and military aid, but the real benefit from Iran comes from the involvement of the Shi'a militias.  These militias, who follow the guidance of religious leaders as opposed to the orders of politicians or generals, act as a surrogate military presence in lieu of regular Iranian units.  They are not necessarily well-trained, but are usually well-equipped and highly motivated to die for their religion (they consider the IS to be the worst kind of Sunni movement, one that directly threatens the very existence of the Shi'a community).  Even with the presence of the militias, there was a period when analysts were considering the probability of direct Iranian military intervention.  By avoiding this development, Tehran can keep the international focus on its apparent "forward-leaning" attitude vis-a-vis meeting with the Obama Administration to discuss a possible resolution to the nuclear issue.  Such an agreement would not only help to reform the Iranian image worldwide, it would more than likely include a return to normal diplomatic relations with the United States (first Cuba, then Iran....whose next, North Korea?).

On March 17, the people of Israel will elect a new Knesset.  This election was not mandatory; when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the decision to conduct early elections, analysts anticipated a strong Likud victory, and possibly a bit of a mandate for Netanyahu to continue his hardline policies.  What has transpired has been nothing short of astounding, and I'm sure will result in an interesting documentary ort film one day.  Forces opposed to Netanyahu coalesced, and using lessons learned from the last two U.S. presidential elections, have created an electoral juggernaut that could very well put a center-left government in office, when over seventy percent of Israelis still identify themselves as either conservatives or supporters of Likud.  The strategy relies on a number of factors: first, all voters who support or lean towards the center-left must be identified, located and registered to vote.  Next, a full-proof transportation network must be put in place, to ensure that voters reach the correct voting station before it closes (Israeli electoral law has no absentee voting provision, and voting locations are instructed to close exactly on a pre-designated time; if you arrived late, too bad).  As is usually the case, this election will be decided by turnout.  The Israeli press, much of it hostile to Netanyahu, has been aggressively attacking the Prime Minister on every aspect of his leadership, and Netanyahu's allegation that foreign money has entered the Israeli political system is correct.  A great deal of money from outside Israel has found its way into this election, especially with regards to anti-Netanyahu advertisements.  On the other hand, Netanyahu is wildly popular in the United States, and Likud has certainly benefited from the financial support of Americans.  I'm not prepared to write-off Netanyahu.  He has worked tirelessly to galvanize Likud voters against a threat to the party, and no doubt on election day, a certain percentage of other rightist and religious parties will cross lines and vote Likud, just to show opposition to The Zionist Union.        

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