A delicately balanced tactical military coalition including the U.S., Iran, and a range of Iraqi Shi’i militias is supporting Baghdad’s campaign to retake Mosul. The likelihood of this coalition holding together depends on how quickly it can defeat the Islamic State for its members have very different long-term agendas.
In a move closely paralleling the ground portion of U.S. strategy toward the Iraqi-Syrian theater, Iran plans to deploy army sharpshooters. The U.S. currently has 3,500 soldiers in Iraq and the Pentagon is planning to rotate in 1300 new soldiers this spring.The U.S. has also reportedly taken over Rmeilan Airbase in Kurdish-controlled Syria. A report in March, denied by CENTCOM, claimed that the U.S. is now running two bases in Syria. CENTCOM appeared to have been splitting words, for the spokesman continued by observing that “U.S. forces in Syria are consistently looking for ways to increase efficiency for logistics and personnel recovery support.”
How Washington and Tehran plan to coordinate their joint, boots-on-the-ground battlefield support for the various armies fighting the Islamic State is a hot political topic of immediate tactical military concern that officials in neither capital appear willing to discuss publicly. It is only logical to assume that Iranian and U.S. soldiers will be within firing distance of each other during the Iraqi campaign just launched to retake Mosul,. In Syria, with America’s Kurdish allies moving from the north toward Islamic State positions and Iran’s Damascus allies moving from the south, keeping a safe distance between U.S. and Iranian sharpshooters/targetteers/trainers may currently be less of a concern, though there is little reason for longer term nonchalance: a battlefield friendly fire incident is becoming increasingly possible and a false-flag operation to mar slowly warming U.S.-Iranian relations an extremely serious likelihood.
Just as U.S.-Russian air war strategy in the Iraqi-Syrian theater has become mirror-image, so has U.S.-Iranian ground strategy. But this appearance of a grand anti-Salafi coalition is marred by continued U.S. diplomatic support for Saudi military participation in the anti-Islamic State effort on the one side and the disagreement between Tehran and Washington over Assad. Short-term military cooperation thus contradicts long-term divergence of political goals, setting the two sides up for a major problem that will require astute diplomatic maneuvering. Given the profound domestic political factionalism in both capitals, the likelihood of a rational diplomatic compromise appears slim.
The March 19 Islamic State attack on a new, supposedly secret U.S. base in Iraq and the public hostility of the Iranian-supported (if not controlled) Iraqi militias to a U.S. whose occupation is such a recent memory suggest a pitfall in the current U.S. strategy: the potential for so alienating the highly nationalistic militias that the U.S. effectively pushes them into a deal with the Islamic State.
The above graph, “Competing and Cooperating in Iraq,” illustrates the current situation, in which a U.S.-Iranian-Shi’i militia coalition faces the Islamic State.
This delicately balanced coalition could easily evolve into that illustrated in the second graph, “The Road to U.S. Defeat in Iraq,” where the militias are shown as having renounced cooperation with the U.S. in favor of a deal with the Islamic State. Such a deal would likely take the form of splitting Iraq into a Sunni region around Mosul and a Shi’i region around Baghdad. This would simplify the life of both sides by focusing their energies on the areas where they are popular while maintaining Iran’s route to the Levant but would represent a significant defeat for the U.S. goal of retaining influence in the central Mideast.