Tikrit capture: a significant loss for ISIS?
On Wednesday, Iraqi defence minister Khalid al-Obeidi announced that the government had regained control of the city of Tikrit, describing the security forces as having “accomplished their mission”.
The Iraqi government is now highlighting the fall of Tikrit as the beginning of the end of ISIS, with vocal plans to recapture the rest of Iraq currently under its control. Naming two Iraqi provinces still under ISIS, al-Abadi said: “Here we come to you, Anbar. Here we come to you, Nineveh.”
While the liberation of the city from ISIS control is undoubtedly a major success for Iraq, the significance of the victory is not quite precise.
Tikrit lies 140km north west of Baghdad and 220km south east of Mosul, the self-described caliphate of ISIS and geographically important for both. Regaining control of Mosul would not be possible if Tikrit remained with ISIS, and the development acts as a major morale boost for Iraqi security forces.
Psychologically, the defeat is paramount for ISIS and serves to act as a reminder that they have a substantial battle ahead in their quest to control large swaths of Iraq. However, concurrently with this defeat, across the border in Syria, its fighters made their deepest foray yet into the capital of Damascus by infiltrating a Palestinian refugee camp.
If it gains full control of the Syrian capital, ISIS could be a serious threat to the heart of Damascus and the seat of president Bashar Asssad’s power.
However, ISIS militants claimed Tikrit last June and it was only at the beginning of March that an operation began to take back the city. Outnumbering ISIS fighters two to one, the attack was the largest anti-ISIS operation to date.
Despite this, the length of time taken between capture and liberation of the city does not bode well for al-Abadi’s future hopes for success. The slow pace of the operation, which was until recently led by an Iranian officer, does not instil a sense of accomplishment in terms of bringing on the downfall of ISIS.
The defeat of the group has also been attributed to the late input of American air strikes, credit that will not be welcomed by ground security forces and may halt future American air support; something which could prove detrimental to continued Iraqi success.
With the government’s pledge that other Iraqi provinces under ISIS control would be next to fall, the failure to retain control of Tikrit is symbolic for the terrorist group, but the effect of this battle may be more of a gain for Iraq than a significant event in the defeat of ISIS.