Skip to main content

Members of the Iraqi army and Shi'ite fighters launch a mortar toward Islamic State militants outskirt the city of Falluja, Iraq May 19, 2015.

REUTERS

A blame game is unfolding in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq.

Authorities from the United States and Britain – which are part of the air coalition that includes Canada and is hitting Islamic State targets – have said Iraqi forces lack the will to fight IS, which controls more than a third of Iraq.

So what would it take to change the narrative that the Islamic State is making significant gains and faces weak Iraqi forces?

Story continues below advertisement

Here are four military options from international relations and defence experts.

More equipment and training for the Iraqi army

The assumption among Western and Arab coalition partners was that the Iraqi security forces would have a certain level of competence in military leadership, command and control, logistics and operational planning, said Christian Leuprecht, an expert in international relations and defence at Queen's University and Royal Military College.

After all, the United States was engaged in a considerable training mission since 2009 – but recent events show the Iraqi military is just not up to speed, Dr. Leuprecht added.

"Bigger guns and better guns is not going to solve the problem of leadership, of cohesion, of operational planning, of effective intelligence analysis, of logistics and supplies," he said.

In other words, look for movement on the training front.

"That's where you're likely going to see the greatest movement – surging the number of trainers and the types of trainers on the ground," Dr. Leuprecht said.

Story continues below advertisement

The emphasis will likely be more trainers closer to the front lines, he added.

Boots on ground

The U.S.-led strategy of using air power is coming under scrutiny as IS continues to make gains.

"I absolutely agree that defeating [IS] militarily cannot be done by air strikes, but it should be done by local boots on the ground, not foreign boots on the ground," said Thomas Juneau, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa who was a Middle East analyst for 11 years at the Department of National Defence.

Bringing in tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of soldiers would be a "huge mistake," he said.

"It would pour massive oil on the fire, it would lock Iraq in an endless spiral of violence, it would unify Sunnis against foreign invasion, it would lead to massive Shia resistance – violent resistance – to a renewed occupation of Iraq. So it's simply not a viable option," he added.

Story continues below advertisement

Greater use of special forces and more forward air controllers to help laser-target IS positions could produce good military outcomes in Iraq, Dr. Juneau said. He points to the use of U.S. Special Forces in a raid targeting a high-value IS leader in Syria recently – the kind of mission people can expect to see in Iraq.

Right now, there is no political will to use foreign ground troops in Iraq. But Dr. Leuprecht said that could change if Baghdad is in danger or IS carries out a major terrorist attack.

Arming Sunni tribesmen

Equipping Sunni tribesmen and militias in western Iraq is controversial. They helped U.S. forces defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2008 and 2009 – but only after being promised greater inclusion in the Shiite-dominated political process and the security forces, Dr. Juneau said.

The central government in Baghdad was slow to deliver on its promises. "So the Sunnis became alienated again and bandwagoned with Islamic State – either literally fusing with them or at least aligned with them," Dr. Juneau said.

A military solution to the crisis in Iraq would have to involve arming Sunni tribes and militias, but the "trust deficit" between Sunnis and the Shiite-led government is huge, he added.

Story continues below advertisement

Iraq's central government refuses to arm the Sunnis because it fears they would join the Islamic State and use the weapons against the Iraqi army. In the meantime, a Shiite-dominated army is outside its comfort zone, operating in Sunni-dominated parts of the country where the local population mistrusts them, Dr. Juneau said.

That makes liberating these areas very difficult, he added.

Unleashing the Shia militias

Baghdad's plan to retake Ramadi will employ some of the most effective fighters against the Islamic State – the Iranian-backed militias, or actual Iranian militias called Baj, Dr. Leuprecht said.

The effect of sending those militias into the Sunni heartlands of Ramadi and Fallujah is without doubt: "If you want to drive the Sunni tribes and militias into [IS] hands, no better recipe than putting a bunch of Shia and Baj militia in charge of countering [IS]," he said.

The dilemma gets at a larger issue – what is the greatest threat facing Western interests in Iraq?

Story continues below advertisement

Dr. Leuprecht said that, in the medium term, it is not IS. "I think the coalition has demonstrated it can contain [IS]," he said. "But the real risk is the expansion of influence of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.… That is the real problem, that's what we have to manage."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies