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.

ISIS Fighters

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.

As Max Boot notes, the fall of Ramadi is far more significant than the capture one ISIS official:

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.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Yeah, that “Surge” really succeeded, didn’t it?

  2. C. Clavin says:

    What Iraq needs is a strong ruler who can keep a lid on all this nonsense and at the same time serve as a counter-force to Iran.
    Oh…er…wait…um…

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Oh, and a quibble Doug:

    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.

    I know what you are referring to, but I feel the need to point out the we’ve been training and equipping that army for a hell of lot longer than 1 year.

    As for Max Boots’

    More important is to create Sunni military forces in both Syria and Iraq that are able and willing to fight….

    Yeah, that worked out so well for us in Afghanistan, didn’t it Max?

  4. Slugger says:

    I always wondered how Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority was able to dominate the country. It looks like they are the biggest shit-kickers around. On a serious note, how do the Sunni militants get supplied? Bullets and RPG’s can’t be made out of sand. The closest anti-Assad nation is Saudi Arabia. Are the Saudis supplying them? Is the Baghdad Shia government corrupt enough to sell to ISIS?

  5. aFloridian says:

    @Slugger:

    You’d think there’s so many guns, bullets, and bombs on the ground there for three decades of strife that there’s always enough to go around. Isn’t it likely that a large portion of these weapons are from the huge stockpiles that ISIS has captured from the ineffective army.

    I see less and less need to distinguish between the Sunnis and ISIS. Yes, ISIS are often foreign Sunni fighters, with a particularly stone age brand of Sunni Islam. but what motivation is there for the Sunnis to act against ISIS? ISIS is effectively the best option for representing Sunni interests in this conflict. Doug touches on the fact that Iraq, as a legitimate unified state, has really not existed since 2003 and even then it was held together through oppression and terror.

    Why is the Iraqi Army so miserable at doing it’s job? I think part of the problem, again, is that the army is now part of the Shiite political structure and the soldiers are being asked to lay down their lives to defend Sunni areas like Anbar where, frankly, a large portion of the Sunnis probably feel safer and more righteous living in the reborn Sunni caliphate than they do under the corrupt government of heretical Shiites who are more than willing to mistreat Sunnis.

    ISIS is probably nowhere near strong enough to push into southern Iraq and Baghdad where the Shiites have a reason for fighting. Nothing I’m saying here is new, but it’s clearer than ever that a free and democratic unified Iraq will never exist, because it doesn’t want to exist. These people do not want to live door-to-door anymore, to the extent they ever tolerated it. If I was a devout Sunni Muslim I’d much prefer the Caliphate over Baghdad and if I was in Baghdad I would crave the protection of my Shia brothers in Iran, ethnic differences aside.

    I’d like to aid Assad so that the Alawites stay in power in Syria and make what gains in the north of their country that they can. In Iraq, continue doing what we can do support the Kurds, although the Turks become a problem there. Similarly, try to make nice with Iran, at least on a strategic level if it will help defeat or contain ISIS, although then Saudi Arabia becomes a problem. And use what soft power we can to ensure Turkey moves toward Europe and secularism rather than backsliding into sharia. Not sure how you do that either. Oh, and the elephant in the room: figure out something to do with the Palestinians before the Israelis start resettling them at the bottom of the Mediterranean. Oh, and thank our lucky stars Egypt is back in the hands of secular-ish men, albeit not ones I’d invite to my cookout.

    Now tell me what I can do to improve my master plan – I know it’s full of holes.

  6. Tyrell says:

    CBS News reports”carnage” as ISIS is killing captives by the hundreds.
    CNN: ISIS “growing like a virus”.
    NBC: ISIS destroying ancient cities and artifacts.
    ISIS must be destroyed ! Where’s the UN ?

  7. C. Clavin says:

    @aFloridian:

    These people do not want to live door-to-door anymore, to the extent they ever tolerated it.

    Well that’s going to happen when the US installs a Shi’ite government which refuses to deal with the Sunnis in any reasonable manner.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @aFloridian: You forgot the Sprinkly Rainbow Farting Unicorn. 😉

  9. aFloridian says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Add that to the end along with finally locating the Florida Bigfoot subspecies known as the Skunk-Ape. I can dream can’t I?

  10. michael reynolds says:

    Relax. It’s a set-back, but war has ebbs and flows.

    We’ve been pushing to exclude the militias and let the Iraqi army handle things – and that’s worked in some cases, obviously not here. Apparently the Shiite forces behaved well toward the population in Tikrit when they took it, but of course that remains a potential problem if the militias are brought back in to retake Ramadi.

    The takeaway is that there are parts of the Iraqi army that are functional, but clearly not all of it. It’s a setback if we have to go to the militias to retake Ramadi.

    I’m not exactly sure why the Baghdad government (and the US) is determined to maintain complete territorial integrity, but again, relax, ISIS is still in a box, they’re still not going to rule the world and impose sharia law in Iowa.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @aFloridian: What else we got?

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds: As I told one of my more conservative friends who was going on about ISIS, “Call me when they get a boat.”

  13. al-Ameda says:

    @Tyrell:

    CBS News reports”carnage” as ISIS is killing captives by the hundreds.
    CNN: ISIS “growing like a virus”.
    NBC: ISIS destroying ancient cities and artifacts.
    ISIS must be destroyed ! Where’s the UN ?

    The UN? You’re kidding, right?
    The UN is where we (America), and virtually all conservatives have always wanted them to be – on the sidelines.

  14. Slugger says:

    @aFloridian: So what you are saying is that when the US military controlled substantial portions of Iraq ten years ago, they allowed huge caches of weapons and ammo to persist which are now feeding the ISIS war machine. Furthermore, the Baghdad based Shia forces leave behind a lot of weaponry when they cede the battlefield to the other guys. I guess that a combination of incompetence by the US military and corruption by the Shias does meet the Occam’s razor test.

  15. Jack says:

    Good thing ISIS/ISIL is just a JV team, otherwise people might become worried.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    @aFloridian:

    Yeah, it’s quite complicated game of three-dimensional chess. You missed one complication which is that Turkey really wants Assad gone. More than we do.

    I think what Mr. Obama is trying to do is Vietnamization, er, Arabization. Our air support is only dialed up to about a five and we’re not big-footing this on the ground.

  17. Pinky says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Yeah, that “Surge” really succeeded, didn’t it?

    Sure did. It was the closest thing to peace that country has seen since the 1970’s, and I’m afraid it will remain so for a long time.

  18. Tyrell says:

    “Blow to US strategy” “Officials fear major bloodbath !”

  19. Mu says:

    According to the latest twitter claims the Iraqi army had 6000 troops in the town. They were routed by 150 ISIS fighters. In case people are wondering where ISIS gets weapons and ammo from.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    @Pinky:

    It wasn’t the surge, it was the “Anbar Awakening,” which was strangled in its crib by Mr. Bush’s favorite Iraqi pol, Nouri al-Maliki.

    Anbar is hardcore Sunni territory with no love for Shiites. We essentially bribed and otherwise convinced the tribal chiefs to come over to our side, which pushed the Iraqi resistance out. The Shiite government of Mr. Maliki followed up by crapping all over every Sunni they could find. Anbar soured on the Baghdad government and ISIS grew, replacing earlier iterations of anti-Baghdad Sunni militias.

    Al-Maliki, like the rest of the mess there was inherited by Mr. Obama, by which point Maliki had made it clear we were not going to be staying. And as you ought to know, Mr. Bush failed to reach a deal with Maliki and agreed to leave. Mr. Obama then tried his hand at getting the deal Mr. Bush failed to get and failed in his own turn.

    So, unless you’re just completely indifferent to facts, there was no “stay” option. Not unless you wanted to subject US troops to what passes for a criminal justice system in Iraq. Is that what you wanted? Is that what you’re whining about? Did you want every small town Iraqi magistrate armed with arrest powers for US troops?

    What should have happened is that we should have been more competent occupiers and not simply handed power back to the Shiites in some naive and frankly lazy notion of democracy as a kind of magic. Because this thing was screwed once Mr. Bush allowed elections. Shiites voted for Shiites, huge damn surprise, and they were out for ethnic dominance and payback. So, if you were honest, Pinky, you’d see the obvious fact that we lost control of the situation under Mr. Bush.

  21. michael reynolds says:

    @Mu:

    Yep. The Shiite Army and Militias will fight to defend Shiite areas, or they will fight for pillage and blood lust, but territorial integrity? Not so much. What’s concerning but not surprising is that the Baghdad regime seems to have subliminally begun to accept de facto partition. If that’s what’s happening then we are lending our air force to a fight to determine the new borders rather than a fight to preserve Iraq.

    Once again the rightest man in town was Joe Biden.

    I don’t know that we have much interest in avoiding partition. I’m not sure what our national interest is in a united Iraq. I’m not convinced three small Iraqs isn’t better than one. I just don’t know.

  22. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds:

    What should have happened is that we should have been more competent occupiers

    We should have acted like occupiers to begin with. The Bush administration wanted to do this unsustainable hybrid thing where we’d be touchy-feely quasi-occupiers on one hand while being hard-assed going house to house rooting out the bad guys on the other. Put the two together and neither worked very well.

    What we should have done was put a couple hundred thousand troops in country and run the place like dictators until we’d wrung out every bit of sectarian strife. We should have squeezed the leadership until they bleated like sheep. But we wanted to take the high road instead of applying the necessary level of brutality, and therefore we failed.

    In partial defense of the Bushies, the necessary level of brutality would not have been politically acceptable, either within the U. S. or in the international community. But if there was an issue for which America should have gone ahead and said “like it or lump it,” it would have been that. But we didn’t, and now we have this mess.

  23. Pinky says:

    @michael reynolds: The Anbar Awakening happened at the same time as the Surge. It was all part of the reworking of our strategy. The fact that these people were bribable should tell you that partition isn’t inevitable. Joe Biden isn’t the brightest man in the room when he dines alone.

    And of course there was a “stay” option. It would have taken some effort, but that’s how negotiations work. The Obama team is widely reported as having given up, just to fulfill a campaign promise. But at least you’re admitting that the fall of Ramadi is a setback (although you’re couching it in terms of ebbs and flows and three-dimensional chess). The loss of Ramadi is bad – not fatal for the country, although no doubt fatal for thousands of people.