Islamic State: Scorching Iraq's earth

Islamic State: Scorching Iraq's earth
Comment: By burning Iraqi oil fields, Islamic State is not necessarily showing weakness, but inflicting as much strategic damage to the Iraqi government and allies as possible, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.
6 min read
05 Sep, 2016
It is already clear that the cost of recovering Mosul will be significant [AFP]

Last month, as Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and other actors such as the Kurdish Peshmerga pushed both up and down the Tigris valley to prepare the ground for the recapture of Mosul, Islamic State (IS) fighters were observed setting fire to oil wells. The infernos generated by IS in Qayyarah, about 60km south of Mosul, were of such magnitude that NASA satellites were able to photograph them from outer space.

According to reports, IS also began pumping Qayyarah's oil into the Tigris river in order to set it aflame and burn a temporary bridge. The ISF had constructed a bridge to move men and materiel to staging grounds across the river, allowing them to begin advancing directly towards Mosul - IS's last significant urban stronghold in Iraq.

A scorched earth strategy

Although it never materialised, IS's alleged plan to literally burn bridges would have met with failure, had they tried to implement it. While it would have certainly caused untold ecological damage to pour crude oil into the Tigris - not to mention poisoning the water supply of towns and cities further downstream - the consequences of any damage caused to the bridge set up by Iraqi military engineers would not have been too grave: These bridges, known as "pontoon" or "floating" bridges are temporary by their very nature and can be speedily replaced.

As a result, unless IS planned to continuously pump oil into the waters around them, they would not have been able to set and then keep them ablaze indefinitely. Further, air power or other airborne special forces units could have been used to identify the offending oil pipe and destroy it. As such, it would have been a delaying tactic at best, and was most likely a tool of psychological warfare, eliciting images of rivers of fire.

If IS is not going to be benefiting from these oil wells, then they will do everything in their power to make sure that no one else will

Similar to the actions of the people of Aleppo, who burnt car tyres to create a makeshift smokescreen to deter airstrikes, IS took the concept to a new level and set fire to oil wells both before and as they lost Qayyarah. The thick smog generated by burning crude oil would not be enough to stop aircraft fitted with advanced avionics suites that have the assistance of geospatial mapping and other target acquisition technologies for strategic bombing, but tactical close-air support would be severely hindered.

Another objective of all this oil pumping and burning is simply to make the operations to dislodge and fight IS as costly as possible. Essentially, if IS is not going to be benefiting from these oil wells, then they will do everything in their power to make sure that no one else will, be it by destroying them or by depleting them significantly through economic sabotage. Given that the Iraqi economy is almost entirely dependent on oil exports, any loss of oil production or capacity will have a knock-on effect.

With its origins in military antiquity, this scorched earth strategy is nothing new in the field of war and is designed to make an enemy - looking to benefit from capturing resources held by a belligerent - see their hopes literally go up in smoke.

This scorched earth strategy is nothing new in the field of war

Examples from contemporary military history are plenty, including when the Soviet Union, in the face of invasion by Nazi Germany during Operation Barbarossa in 1941, destroyed much of their infrastructure and resources as they withdrew deeper into Russia.

In Iraq too, Saddam Hussein set fire to over 700 Kuwaiti oil wells during the 1990-1991 Gulf War when it was clear to him that his strategic position as conqueror of Kuwait was becoming untenable. This cost the Kuwaitis tens of billions of dollars in damage, and it took them more than eight months to douse the oil fires started by withdrawing Iraqi forces.

While Iraq had to pay back the damage in war reparations, IS is not a state - much as it would like to be - and so costs and damages resulting from fires they start, will be irretrievable.

The military prognosis for IS

The burning of oil wells as ground is lost, is not, as some analysts suggest, necessarily a sign of weakness, for in military terms, losing ground does not always imply being on the "losing side". Indeed, IS has been burning oil fields and wells that it was at risk of losing since early on in its war. In early 2015, IS set fire to oil wells in the Ajil oil fields near Tikrit when it became certain that they would lose their grip on Saddam's hometown.

The primary reason for this was to obscure the battlefield to their enemies' close-air support assets, forcing them to fight IS on terms more favourable to them; on the ground, and largely in built-up areas. This allowed them to inflict as many losses on Iraqi and allied forces as possible, knowing full well that they were holding territory, but essentially still waging a protracted, guerrilla warfare struggle.

The other, more strategic, consideration for burning oil wells near Tikrit was in order to effect secondary and economic damage beyond the physical losses their enemies had to pay in order to retake Tikrit. Thus, it is clear that IS's arson and sabotage in Qayyarah is nothing new, but a continuation of their long-time scorched earth policy that can be likened somewhat to the Soviet strategy against the Nazis in World War II.

IS will be making the recapture of Mosul as costly an enterprise for all involved as possible

IS will be acutely aware that the ISF, Peshmerga and quite possibly the infamously sectarian Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) Shia militias will be tightening the noose around Mosul. IS commanders do not hold any illusions as to the prospects of them holding onto Mosul, and know that their days there are numbered.

In light of this, IS will be making the recapture of Mosul as costly an enterprise for all involved as possible. This will not only involve them hardening their defences around the city where they have been entrenched for more than two years, but also engaging in defensive operations in Mosul's satellite towns and villages that will aim at depleting as much of their opponents' manpower and resources as possible, before the final fight in the city itself.

In short, IS plans to not only psychologically, morally and physically burn out its opponents, but it also plans to burn the oil wells and fields that economically feed the Iraqi state and its grip on power. Iraq may recover Mosul, but the cost will be significant, and IS will then revert to guerrilla warfare and continue to drain the resources and manpower of the government for many years to come.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.