It’s the same old story we’ve heard a dozen times. Islamic State targets a key city or region. They attack relentlessly. Iraqi troops flee in terror. And the government tries to cover up the fact that their soldiers are unable to stem the Islamic State tide.
What’s happening in Ramadi is a familiar story, one that has played out across western Iraq since early last year. But the administration had just made the claim this week that Islamic State had lost 30% of the territory it conquered last year, suggesting the war were going better.
The lightning assault on Ramadi would suggest otherwise.
Rawi said that there had been “realignments” of forces but not retreats and that there were assurances from the U.S.-led coalition that airstrikes would increase. Still, he said, support has been sorely lacking.
“We don’t know if it’s neglect or just a lack of capacity,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim, a spokesman for Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, said reinforcements from counterterrorism units had been deployed.
“Our troops are preparing themselves to attack,” he said. Discussions were underway as to whether to also send what are known as popular mobilization forces, which include Shiite militias, but there was not yet an agreement, he said.
The question of sending the largely Shiite paramilitary forces has been contentious in Anbar, a predominantly Sunni province. But as the security situation has deteriorated, a growing number of local tribal leaders and officials have said they need all the help they can get. In his sermon Friday, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, said “all sons of Iraq” should help the fight, a comment viewed as an endorsement of the militias playing a role.
At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played down the importance of Ramadi, saying that it is “not symbolic in any way” and that Baiji, a key location for Iraq’s oil infrastructure, is “a more strategic target.”
But Iraqi military officials have said that securing Anbar province, much of which is controlled by the Islamic State, is an essential step before any advance on Mosul, the group’s base of power in Iraq.
That view was echoed Friday by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who called Dempsey’s remarks a “gross mischaracterization.”
“The fall of Ramadi would be seen by Iraqi Sunnis as a failure of the Baghdad government to protect them, and could deal a major blow to political reconciliation efforts that are essential to defeating ISIL,” McCain, using another acronym for the Islamic State, said in a statement Friday that was released jointly by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “Yet apparently, the current U.S. strategy is to defend an oil refinery in Beiji, but abandon the capital of pivotal Anbar province to ISIL.”
With Shia militias rampaging through Sunni towns and villages, residents of Anbar don’t trust the government, and military forces fleeing the region and not much being sent from Baghdad to help with the fight confirms their suspicions that the government just doesn’t care very much about them.
The fall of Ramadi would only add to their well-founded skepticism:
Should Iraqi forces appear to only be able to win with the help of militiamen that reportedly looted their communities, it could exacerbate the very same sectarian tensions that led to the rise of ISIS.
“It can increase Sunni resentment and can set the stage of future Sunni resistance against Shiite advancement,” Gartenstein-Ross said. Given that the groups were also backed in some way by Iran “creates risks of perception of regional Shite war.”
And with less territory to control, there could be more ISIS fighters available to move to other areas to “surge them somewhere else or try to capture new territory.”
That’s because the terror group doesn’t appear to have lost many of its forces, even as it lost Tikrit.
U.S. defense officials told The Daily Beast that Iraqi forces confronted little resistance and that few fighters left Tikrit. It suggested that remnants of Saddam Husein’s regime—Baathist party members—were as strong a presence in Tikrit as ISIS. (After all, Tikrit is Saddam’s hometown and a Baathist stronghold.) Baathists and ISIS have increasingly worked together in Iraq even as they have varied goals: While Baathists are Iraqi secular nationalists seeking a return to power, ISIS wants a regional, ultra-religious caliphate.
What remains unclear is whether the loss of territory will create a stronger or weaker alliance between the two groups.
If Ramadi falls, it will likely push back Iraqi and US plans to retake Anbar province, including the key city of Mosul, this year. It may also change US calculations on whether we should give the Iraqi army more sophisticated arms.
But the real damage would occur with efforts to unite the country behind the government. Many Sunnis, if not fighting with IS, are not very troubled that the terrorists are giving the government all they can handle. That kind of lukewarm loyalty to Baghdad stands in the way of forging an effective, united front of Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds to throw Islamic State out of the country.
The fall of Ramadi would only exasperate the problem as Sunnis are confirmed in their belief that government forces will only fight and die to protect Shias. Prime Minister al-Abadi would do well to rush a sizable number of troops to the battle in Anbat and make a supreme effort to protect Ramadi from IS.
Otherwise, progress against Islamic State elsewhere won’t mean very much in the end.