ISIS Captures Another Key Iraqi City
ISIS has captured Ramadi, and revealed yet again how fractured Iraq actually is. Fixing that isn't something that American aid or arms can accomplish.
While Americans were waking up yesterday to the news that a man who the Administration says was a top ISIS official was killed in a special forces raid inside ISIS-held territory in Syria, ISIS forces in Iraq were captured a key city in Anbar Province in a battle that once again seemed to demonstrated the fact that the Iraqi military has no real interest in defending its own country:
BAGHDAD — The last Iraqi security forces fled Ramadi on Sunday, as the city fell completely to the militants of the Islamic State, who ransacked the provincial military headquarters, seizing a large store of weapons, and killed people loyal to the government, according to security officials and tribal leaders.
The fall of Ramadi, despite intensified American airstrikes in recent weeks in a bid to save the city, represented the biggest victory so far this year for the Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the vast areas of Syria and Iraq that it controls. The defeat also laid bare the failed strategy of the Iraqi government, which had announced last month a new offensive to retake Anbar Province, a large desert region in the west of which Ramadi is the capital.
“The city has fallen,” said Muhannad Haimour, the spokesman for Anbar’s governor. Mr. Haimour said that at least 500 civilians and security personnel had been killed over the last two days in and around Ramadi, either from fighting or executions. Among the dead, he said, was the 3-year-old daughter of a soldier.
“Men, women, kids and fighters’ bodies are scattered on the ground,” said Sheikh Rafi al-Fahdawi, a tribal leader from Ramadi, who was in Baghdad on Sunday and whose men had been resisting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
He also said, “All security forces and tribal leaders have either retreated or been killed in battle. It is a big loss.”
Ramadi fell a day after the Pentagon said Special Operations forces, flying in helicopters that took off from Iraq, carried out a raid in eastern Syria that resulted in the death of an Islamic State leader and the capture of his wife, along with the recovery of a trove of materials American officials hope will yield important intelligence on the group.
American officials said recently that the Islamic State was on the defensive in Iraq, noting that the group had lost territory in Salahuddin Province and in some other areas in northern Iraq near the border with the autonomous Kurdish region. Yet the fall of Ramadi shows that the group is still capable of carrying out effective offensive operations.
Anbar Province holds painful historical import for the United States as the place where nearly 1,300 Marines and soldiers died after the American-led invasion of 2003. Since the beginning of 2014, months before the fall of Mosul and the start of the American air campaign against the Islamic State, the United States has been working with the Iraqi government to drive the extremist group from Anbar, sending vast supplies of weapons and ammunition and, more recently, training Sunni tribal fighters at an air base in the province.
At the outset of an offensive to liberate Tikrit, in Salahuddin Province, in March, the Iranian-backed militias took the lead, and American warplanes stayed away. Once those militias stalled, Mr. Abadi ordered them to retreat, which was followed by airstrikes by the United States, an advance by Iraqi security forces, and the liberation of Tikrit.
In the wake of that victory, Mr. Abadi promised a new effort in Anbar, a campaign to be led by the Iraqi security forces and supported by American airstrikes, with Iranian-backed militias on the sidelines. A crucial component of that strategy was to arm local Sunni tribesmen to fight, but that plan never materialized on a large-scale, partly because of resistance by powerful Shiite political leaders in Baghdad.
The deterioration of Anbar over the past month underscored the ineffectiveness of the Iraqi Army, which is being trained by American military advisers, and raised questions about the United States’ strategy to defeat the Islamic State. At the same time, now that the militias are being called upon, the collapse of Ramadi has demonstrated again the influence of Iran, even if its advisers are unlikely to be on the ground in Anbar, as they were during the operation in Tikrit.
Even if the raid had killed a far more senior ISIS leader it would not have made a strategic difference. After all back in 2006, JSOC killed Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of AGI (predecessor of ISIS), and that did not prevent AQI from becoming stronger than ever. It took a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign in 2007-2008 to bring AQI to the brink of defeat and it will take a similar campaign today to defeat ISIS.
More important is to create Sunni military forces in both Syria and Iraq that are able and willing to fight against ISIS with American help. But there is scant sign of progress on this front, because the Obama administration has held U.S. policy in Iraq hostage to the dictates of Baghdad, where the Shiite sectarians who are in control are, to put it mildly, unenthusiastic about arming Sunnis.
That’s why Ramadi fell and why there will be little success in rolling back ISIS’ gains in Syria and Iraq-because Sunnis still see ISIS as the lesser evil compared to domination by Shiite extremists armed and supported by Iran. That is the fundamental strategic problem that must be addressed in order to make progress against ISIS. Special Operations raids, no matter how successful, are of scant importance by comparison.
In the end, what Boot is describing here is really more of a political problem than a strategic one. As much as it has in the past under Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi Government in Baghdad still sees the Sunnis as a bigger threat than ISIS, and the Sunnis see Baghdad and its Iranian-backed Shiite militas as more of a threat than ISIS, Neither side seems to see either themselves as Iraqi over and above their religious and ethnic identity, and they certainly don’t seem to see themselves as having very much in common with the people on the other side. In some sense then, there doesn’t seem to be much of an idea of Iraqi national unity that transcends ethnic and religious considerations, and as long as that’s the case it’s not surprising the Sunni tribes cut deals with ISIS while the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army cuts and runs at the first sign of a fight even after a year’s worth of American training and support. The fact that the government responds to all of this by bringing in support from Iranian-backed Shiite militias only compounds the problem because it pushes the Sunnis even further into the arms of ISIS.
These aren’t really “strategic” problems as Boot describes them. Instead it occurs to me that this is a far more complicated issue regarding Iraqi national unity and whether Sunni and Shiiites can live together in something that even comes close to resembling peace. As it stands, Iraq’s other major ethnic group, the Kurds, has already made their choice on this matter and seems to be well on the way toward creating a Kurdish state in the north that exists in all but name at this point. With American help, they’ve also been fairly successful in pushing back against ISIS and preventing it from gaining much of a foothold in their territory in Iraq. The same can not be said in the rest of the country, where ISIS seems to be successfully exploiting the Sunni-Shiite split, and the national government seems to be unable to create the kind of trust among the Sunni population that would be needed to present a united front against ISIS. That’s not a strategic problem per se and, more importantly, it’s a problem that no amount of American financial or military assistance is going to be able fix. As it has always been, this is all up to the Iraqis at this point.