The raid against an Islamic State prison in Hawija marks a continuation of willingness to ground forces in dangerous operations against the militants. What does this mean for the US footprint in the region and for local actors?
The decision by the US Army Delta Force to join a raid with the Kurds is much more than a signal to Russia’s foray into the Syrian crisis. It is a message to the Arab allies that the US is still a leader and essential partner in the overlapping conflict. The mission to free IS captives was a success despite the loss of one US service member.
The raid, carried out with the Kurdish Counter Terror Department (CTD) last Thursday (Oct 22) to free hostages held in a prison about 4 miles north of the Iraqi town of Hawija. In an operation that lasted two hours, 48 Peshmerga and 30 US Special Ops para-dropped into site and released some Iraqi 70 prisoners.
Hawija is about 30 miles south of Kirkuk and has been under IS’ (and Sunni tribal elements aligned with the group) control since June 2014 following clashes between Sunni Arabs and predominantly Shia Iraqi security forces. Prior to the raid, IS had executed suspected informers and those with links to the government and displayed their bodies.
As the US military has said that these types of raids will likely become more common, there are three important factors to bear in mind as the regional conflict against IS plays out.
1. US- Iraqi cooperation is still strong
The US has made Iraq its primary objective from the start of the campaign. The US military has again stepped up airstrikes in Iraq against IS positions. The Sunnis in Anbar province have begun to receive arms and training which will be crucial towards ensuring IS does not return to Sunni areas.
The Kurds have been in control of Kirkuk since Iraqi government forces withdrew last year. For their part, the Kurds will need to work with Baghdad, not just to liberate Mosul, but to repair badly damaged and neglected infrastructure.
The prisoners that were freed were thought to be Kurds. However, the fact that they were mainly Arabs might provide an opportunity for repairing the long sour relationship between Erbil and Baghdad. This includes the partnership with Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish officials differed with the US on whether or not Baghdad had been informed in advance of the mission. Trust and cooperation will be difficult to build.
The Kurdish Regional Government is facing its own internal tension and a period of financial stress. The raid also demonstrates the extremely close partnership and trust that the US has with the Kurds and points to a likely increase in cooperation that will keep the Kurds from turning towards Russia.
2. Russia, Syria and Iraq: the other anti-IS coalition
In Iraq, the news of an intelligence sharing deal was widely welcomed by many Iraqis. The use of Russian arms will likely increase on Iraqi battlefields as well. However, despite the fact that Iraq was a Cold War ally of Russia and today has formed a close relationship with Iran, it has remained a plausible distance from associating itself too firmly with this camp.
In order to hold the country together in the long run, it will need to keep one foot in with the US and Sunni Arab Gulf States as well. This is why any implementation of a de facto alliance with Russia will be unlikely.
Russia’s bombing campaign of Syrian anti-IS rebel factions in the Idlib province could essentially bridge the gap between nationalist elements the Free Syrian Army and Islamist rebels Ahrar al-Sham. Furthermore, for Syria’s rebels, Russia’s actions have reduced its standing as a potential partner for a diplomatic outcome.
3. Islamic State is on the defensive
IS was born in Iraq but will likely make its last stand in Syria. The last month has seen IS under tremendous pressure on multiple fronts in Iraq. Iraqi security forces have made slow but sure advances against IS forces in Ramadi and have fought off numerous counter attacks.
The Iraqi government has halted the payment of government workers in IS-held areas in order to choke off the flow of revenue options to the group.
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and supported militia are battling IS to take key supply lines outside of Aleppo.
Special Forces raids have become a consistent foreign policy tool in the countries left dangling in a political and security flux by the Arab Spring.
A similar raid conducted by US Army Delta Force last May in Deir ez-Zor eliminated the IS commander Abu Sayyaf, who oversaw the group’s oil and gas infrastructure and revenue. A previous rescue mission in August 2014 to secure the release of American hostages was unsuccessful.
The ongoing trend of Special Forces operations in the region will continue. The perception that the US is lessening its footprint in the Middle East and criticism surrounding the Obama Administration’s decisions regarding the crisis in Syria and the US role against IS may remain present until the end of Obama’s Presidency. But the next Administration will surely employ the use of these missions in support of its regional allies.