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Mosul vs Ramadi

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.

The Syria/Iraq Theater The Syria/Iraq Theater

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.

Embryonic nations Embryonic nations

Seen from this vantage, the ISIS assault on northern Iraq, Mosul in particularly, was a military necessity connected with the growth of ISIS in Syria. ISIS needed to secure the border with Turkey in order to obtain its supplies. It needed to bottle up the Kurds to its rear. Lastly, the ISIS had weapons from Turkey which originated in Benghazi.  These three factors, working together provided the motive and the means for ISIS to take the north.

Recent documents obtained by Judicial Watch include a DOD report which showed the administration was aware of the role Libya played in arming the Syrian rebels.

Weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles were shipped from the port of Benghazi, Libya to the Port of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria. The weapons shipped during late-August 2012 were Sniper rifles, RPG’s, and 125 mm and 155mm howitzers missiles.

During the immediate aftermath of, and following the uncertainty caused by, the downfall of the ((Qaddafi)) regime in October 2011 and up until early September of 2012, weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port of Benghazi, Libya to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria. The Syrian ports were chosen due to the small amount of cargo traffic transiting these two ports. The ships used to transport the weapons were medium-sized and able to hold 10 or less shipping containers of cargo.

The DIA document further details:

The weapons shipped from Syria during late-August 2012 were Sniper rifles, RPG’s and 125mm and 155mm howitzers missiles. The numbers for each weapon were estimated to be: 500 Sniper rifles, 100 RPG launchers with 300 total rounds, and approximately 400 howitzers missiles [200 ea – 125mm and 200ea – 155 mm.] The heavily redacted document does not disclose who was shipping the weapons.

This suggests that the period of the "Arab Spring" had side effects, one of which was the destabilization of Iraq via the backdoor. Perhaps this was the unintended effect of  the administration's practice of "isolating" one foreign policy issue from others, such that Iran, Syria, Iraq and all the other countries could be treated as if they were sandboxed from the others.  They are not.

In particular, the administration should have been wary  of Turkey, which in 2003,  sabotaged the American attack on Iraq by denying the 4 ID passage through its territory.  For they could stand to gain if Iraq falls to pieces. The motives are suggested in the map above.

In the colors you may descry the endgame which Turkey and Iran may be fervently hoping for. If ISIS and Assad batter each other into exhaustion and Iraq collapses, the Turks stand to pick up the purple, pink, yellow and lower half of the violet -- essentially recreating a large part of the old Ottoman empire.

Tehran fares less well but they do get Baghdad and the lower Euphrates plus a huge new swath of the Persian gulf coast. Not bad, considering.

In this endgame, Obama gets squat. He probably understands this now. Only by extending the violet north and to the yellow can he salvage anything from the debacle he caused in the first place.  He is like the man who abandoned Pork Chop Hill and realizes, just as he's left it, that he needs it after all or his whole position collapses.

But to do that effectively he will have to retrace his steps and recreate a position so similar to George W. Bush's that it is politically impossible. Therefore that is ruled out. Unfortunately, the means he has allowed the US military to salvage his position is incommensurate with his political objective. Here's Cordesman again:

the current level of U.S. military intervention may be too limited and too constrained to succeed, but the risk of failure will be high even if the U.S. uses added force more effectively. ...

A stronger U.S. advisory effort can at best help Iraqi forces inflict tactical defeats on ISIS. It cannot win on a strategic level without far more Iraqi unity, it cannot create secure areas in the west where Sunnis can live a secure and normal life, and it cannot bridge the growing sectarian gap between them.

The U.S. also cannot help Iraq recover Mosul and the lost areas in Ninewa unless it can create an equally effective forward-based advisory presence for both the Iraq Army and Kurdish forces and can do so in a political and economic climate where Iraq’s Arab and Kurds cooperate in recovering the north, and are willing to compromise over how to govern the liberated areas and restore some kind of normal life and economy.

In other words Obama did not have, nor will he have any time soon, an Iraqi Army competent to retake Mosul. If Obama did not understand this, ISIS did. They knew that Obama not only did not have the horsepower to take Mosul, he probably did not have enough to hold Ramadi. So ISIS did the obvious thing. It launched a flank attack from the West and directly threatened Baghdad. This spoiled the Mosul offensive and exposed the true weakness of the Shi'ites.  Baghdad instantly put aside all thoughts of recovering lost northern territory concentrated on a defensive crouch.

To return to the Mosul versus Ramadi debate, the former is the proper objective on the offensive while the latter is the right place to watch on the defensive. ISIS understood that given the force levels and rules of engagement Obama had authorized, the US was not on the offensive. It was on the defensive. In the offensive the key objective is Mosul; on the defense the key point is Ramadi. Because Obama deceived himself into believing his Frankenstein "strategy" was offensive, he unrealistically tended toward Mosul. In the meantime ISIS closed the distance and punched in Ramadi.

ISIS succeeded because they saw the situation as it was.  By contrast Obama saw the situation as anything but what it was. Cordesman sums up the situation.  Obama's strategy is fantasy given the means he has provided.

A stronger U.S. advisory effort can at best help Iraqi forces inflict tactical defeats on ISIS. It cannot win on a strategic level without far more Iraqi unity, it cannot create secure areas in the west where Sunnis can live a secure and normal life, and it cannot bridge the growing sectarian gap between them.

The U.S. also cannot help Iraq recover Mosul and the lost areas in Ninewa unless it can create an equally effective forward-based advisory presence for both the Iraq Army and Kurdish forces and can do so in a political and economic climate where Iraq’s Arab and Kurds cooperate in recovering the north, and are willing to compromise over how to govern the liberated areas and restore some kind of normal life and economy.

The administration has been intellectually dishonest about the situation. Its deployments are indistinguishable from abandonment, but its stated goals are in the language of the offensive. Obama is like a boxer fleeing the ring yet claiming to be the champion of the world. The basic contradiction is this: Obama has objectively abandoned Iraq. Yet he talks as if he is still there because he launches a few drone strikes and sponsors training programs.

The honest thing to do would be align strategy with deployments.  Either he admits  he's cut MENA loose and fashions operations consistent with that decision or he continues to talk big and makes a fool of himself.  Of course he could repudiate his earlier mistake, but the odds of that are slim.


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