ISIS’ attack on Ramadi has apparently derailed the planned Iraqi government offensive on Mosul. Some pundits have even suggested Ramadi’s fall proves it was an American strategic mistake to set its sights on Mosul, implcitly suggesting that Ramadi was the correct critical point. But rarely is the logic behind the debate explained. Where should the emphasis have been?
Yet an examination of the respective arguments for Mosul or Ramadi brings into focus as perhaps nothing else does the respective priorities of the combatants. If one understands why one city is regarded as more important then one also understands what the parties in Syrian civil war and the conflict in Iraq have been up to.
The best place to begin is a map. The one below (which you can click on to expand) shows the current situation on the ground. Dark brown marks the area controlled by ISIS. The areas shaded green are Kurdish. As can be readily seen, Mosul, which is at 12 o’clock on the map relative to Baghdad, represents the end-point of what can call the “northern strategy”. Mosul, especially the Mosul dam, controls the headwaters of the great rivers and sits at the junction of the Syrian, Turkish and Iranian borders. It is where the uplands passes descend upon the plain. Ramadi, on the other hand represents the “western strategy”. Ramadi is the road to the Western desert and to Anbar.
It is easy to see why American planners would choose Mosul as the primary objective. Taking Mosul would put Baghdad back in control of their northern borders. It would obviate the danger that the Mosul dams would be blown, flooding the great rivers, bringing ruin to the floodplain downstream of Baghdad. It would open a supply route to the Kurds, secure access to the oil refineries and wells of the north. It would provide a place where a Sunni population that did not want to live under ISIS could inhabit. Above all, it would connect Iraq along the axis of the rivers, creating the minimum territory required for Iraq to remain Iraq without being obviously partitioned. Anthony Cordesman stated this obvious point when he wrote:
the areas ISIS holds in the north are far more populated than Anbar in the southwest, and largely by Arab Sunnis that have sharply competing claims from the Iraqi Kurds. … Mosul and Ninewa, not Ramadi and Anbar, are the strategic prize that is the key to Iraqi unity, and creating some form of federalism that gives Iraq’s Sunnis status and security. …
The defeat at Ramadi should not have happened, but the war to save Iraq will be won in Mosul
Cordesman’s logic seems unassailable. Ramadi is the gateway to empty desert. Surely Mosul is the correct objective. But before you make up your mind forget Iraq for a moment and think about the situation without the artificiality of borders. Look at Syria and Iraq together. The area in purple-gray is the nucleus of the state ISIS wants to build. The area in violet to the south is what the government in Baghdad is trying to hold. The yellowish areas are Kurdish.