Iraq Isn't the Right Front

A Syria-First Strategy to Fight ISIS

Smoke rises after a shell fell on a building that was held by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, March 28, 2015. Rami Zayat / Reuters

The battle to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has been a serious test of the United States’ current strategy in Iraq. Despite more than 2,320 strikes (costing $1.83 billion) since the summer, ISIS still holds uncontested control of the Sunni heartlands, including in Anbar, Deir Ezzor, Mosul, and Raqqa. If anything, the air strikes have mostly helped Kurdish and Shiite militias push ISIS back from their own territories and deeper into the Sunni ones.

The battle for Tikrit, though, could be different. The defeat of ISIS in Saddam Hussein’s hometown seems likely—but only after the complete destruction of the city. The battle stalled for more than three weeks despite initial expectations that it would be over within days or even hours. ISIS has reportedly been holed up in 1.5 square mile area inside Tikrit, with the Iraqi government announcing last week the final phase of the battle. If ISIS does lose, it would mark the group’s first retreat from the Sunni heartland since it took over large swaths of Iraq and Syria in June last year, undermining the group’s reputation for invincibility. But the potential gains should not distract from important dynamics reshaping the fight to ISIS’ advantage.

In Iraq, the battle against ISIS is increasingly perceived as a sectarian fight led by the Iranian-backed militias that dominate the country’s political and military landscape. As these militias start pushing against ISIS at the borders of Sunni-dominated areas, unease will only grow. The U.S. strategy stipulated that Sunni tribal fighters would be leading the effort to dislodge ISIS in Sunni areas, but the Iraqi government, along with the powerful militias that form the core of the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi, announced the start of the battle of Tikrit without consulting the U.S.-led international coalition.

In other words, although ISIS’ losses in Tikrit and other Sunni areas would seem like good things, the United States should tread carefully. The air campaign against ISIS

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