ISIS in Ramadi: Like the Tet 1968?

If Syria is -- in the words of Al Arabiya's Washington correspondent Nadia Bilbassy -- likely to be remembered as Obama's Rwanda, will the ISIS offensive now underway in Iraq go down as the president's Tet?  Their attack on the city of Ramadi caught the media by surprise and the first reports coming out of the city were tinged with an alarm born of shock.

(CNN)The months-long fight for the key central Iraqi city of Ramadi now appears to be going ISIS's way, with the Islamist extremist group capturing police headquarters, the Ramadi Great Mosque and even raising its trademark black flag over the provincial government building, sources said.

The ISIS push began Thursday, with armored bulldozers and at least 10 suicide bombings used to burst through gates and blast through walls in Ramadi, according to a security source who has since left the city. Dozens of militants followed them into the city center. ...

"There will be good days and bad days in Iraq," State Department acting deputy spokesman Jeff Rathke said. ISIS "is trying to make today a bad day in Ramadi."

The shock was not dissipated by the assurances offered by the Obama administration. Robert Burns of the Associated Press filed a skeptical report that could have come straight out of the press coverage of Vietnam. He as much as ridiculed the administration's explanation that the attack was a flash in the pan.

Despite major new setbacks in Iraq, the U.S. military command leading the fight against Islamic State militants insisted Friday that its strategy is working and that the militants' takeover of a key oil refinery and a government compound are fleeting gains feeding an IS propaganda machine.

"We believe across Iraq and Syria that Daesh is losing and remains on the defensive," said Marine Brig. Gen. Thomas D. Weidley, chief of staff for Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, the name of the international campaign fighting IS. "Daesh" is the Arabic acronym for the militant group that swept into Iraq from Syria last June and swiftly took control of much of Iraq's north and west.

Even as Weidley spoke to reporters by phone from his headquarters in Kuwait, IS militants were defying his description of them as a force on defense. Iraqi officials said IS fighters had captured the main government compound in Ramadi, the capital of battle-scarred Anbar province. Other officials said they had gained substantial control over the Beiji oil refinery, a strategically important prize in the battle for Iraq's future and a potential source of millions of dollars in income for the militants.

The battle to push IS out of Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq, which some had hoped would begin this spring, now seems a more distant goal.

Even if the administration sincerely believed ISIS was losing,  the situation was still serious enough to prompt Vice President Joe Biden to call the Iraqi prime minister to promise more weapons, especially AT-4s which can stop VBIEDs in their tracks. Still the question remains: is the sky falling or is General Weidley right when he says ISIS' "advances were minor and unsustainable".

The NVA gains during the Tet offensive were also minor and unsustainable from a strictly military point of view.  The offensive was a catastrophe but a PR victory for Hanoi. Giap's forces sustained over 45,000 KIA vs 4,000 from the US-South Vietnamese side. But North Vietnam's center of gravity wasn't the allied armies on the ground, it was Lyndon Johnson's will to win.  They may have lost the fight in Hue, but they won the narrative in the New York Times and CBS News.

Could ISIS be trying the same stunt? As the Institute of War points out, ISIS is attacking across the front.  They are guided by a strategic objective where  Ramadi is but a piece of the puzzle.

ISIS’s attacks in Ramadi also coincided with recent attacks this week in Deir ez Zour province in eastern Syria, potentially constituting a cross-front campaign by ISIS to consolidate control of the middle Euphrates in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s attacks along the Euphrates in Anbar continue to challenge the ISF in their defense of key terrain in northern Iraq, where the ISF made gains against ISIS at the Baiji Oil Renery. ISIS also seized the opportunity to attack ISF positions between Baghdad and Samarra while the ISF was likely focused upon the defense of Kadhimiya,though this was likely a supporting operation to further split ISF resources.

ISIS is operating further afield than Ramadi; it could even be trying to open up a front within Baghdad itself by attempting to start an all-out war between the Sunni and Shi'a sections of the city. Like the NVA, ISIS' strategic conceptions are non-linear.  Jessica Lewis McFate,  a former US Army intelligence officer at the Institute of War, explains: "the US-led coalition will incur risk if it mistakes ISIS’s low-profile tactics as actual losses to its overall military capability."  ISIS isn't fighting Obama's war.  Its goal, she writes, is to "'Remain and Expand'”.

The Middle Euphrates The Middle Euphrates

To Remain signifies being able to hold the central Euphrates Iraq/Syria area against Baghdad's forces.  This is their territory.  It is their state. Given the reluctance of Iraqi authorities to partner with the Sunni tribes, and their ability to switch supplies and men from the Syrian front, it appears ISIS will be able to "Remain" for a while longer.

Whether they can Expand remains to be seen, but that is their goal. McFate writes: "ISIS’s ultimate end is likely a global war, not a limited war for local control inside Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s vision for a prospering caliphate requires that it instigate a broader war to compromise states competing with it for legitimacy."

This encapsulates the problem in a nutshell. ISIS' problem is to expand. Obama's problem is to contain. ISIS' problem is to start fires. Obama's is to put them out. Contain ISIS and it will burn itself out.

But in this task Obama is failing. Chaos is spreading to Libya, North Africa and through the Levant in part because Obama cannot unify his allies nor even US domestic opinion around a single over-arching strategy.  What's the plan?  If Obama has one, nobody is explaining it.  It is perhaps telling that the president couldn't sell his ideas to the Gulf allies, who mostly stayed away from his summit.

Perhaps nowhere is Obama's "command presence" -- or the lack of it -- more evident than in his last interview with Al Arabiya.  The interviewer repeatedly asked him: what's the plan? What's the plan?  His answers were pure Obama.

Q They look to the U.S. for leadership.

THE PRESIDENT: -- if something -- if we did something, then why didn't the United States meddle in our affairs. If we don't do something, then, well, why isn’t the United States doing something. I think that's a common theme. And I was very frank with the GCC leaders. I said, look, we're partners; we can do these things together. But the United States ultimately can only work through Arab countries who are also working on their own behalf to deal with these issues.

And part of our goal here is to build capacity. This is why in Iraq, for example, I have been fully prepared to support a legitimate, constitutionally appropriate Iraqi government. But what I’ve said is we will work through the Iraqi government and the Iraqi military and we will support them.

And in Syria, our efforts have to be as part of a broader international coalition, and ultimately a military solution is not going to be the solution. If the United States simply sent in troops into Syria -- our military is very effective, and for a short period of time, we potentially could come down on the side of the opposition against Assad. But in terms of governance, in terms of keeping the peace, in terms of working through some of the sectarian issues that have plagued that country as well as the region for such a long time, those would still be there.

And so we're prepared to work not just with the GCC, but with countries like Turkey -- which has a very powerful military, are right on the border. They’ve got 2 million people who they have very generously, I think, accepted from Syria. But ultimately, it makes more sense for us to work with them, rather than unilaterally, in order to resolve what is a very serious humanitarian issue.

Q So forgive me, Mr. President, when people rise and they demand their rights, they look up to the United States.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes.

Q They don't look to any other country. And especially after President Assad used chemical weapons, people felt they’ve been let down. The civil war did not start from day one. They felt that you could have done something in the beginning and you didn't.

THE PRESIDENT: But if you look at the history of the process, essentially what they're arguing is that we should have invaded Syria and overthrown the Syrian regime -- which, by the way, would be a violation of international law, and undoubtedly we would then be criticized for that, as well.

Obama's remarks provide a look into his mind, into his categories of thinking and into the boundaries of his conception.  And in a way, the glimpse is comforting.  ISIS is going for the ideological headshot, for a way to break his will, but Obama is like some dinosaur from the age of degenerate socialism, with a mind full of mush. There's no central nervous system to disrupt, no will to break that hasn't been broken already.  ISIS cannot shatter Obama's strategic plan if there isn't one. Trying to scare Obama is like trying to terrify a cabbage.

Ironically ISIS may find it much harder to beat Obama than Giap did Lyndon Johnson.  At least one hopes that is the case.


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