The seizure by ISIS of Ramadi, capital of the Iraqi province of Anbar, has come as a rude awakening to Iraqi and Western officials.
After ISIS fighters were evicted from the city of Tikrit in March, the Iraqi government announced that an offensive to recover Anbar would follow. But it has floundered thanks to poor morale among Iraqi troops in the face of a remorseless and resilient enemy, mistrust of the government among Sunni tribes and limited coalition airstrikes.
The loss of Ramadi has also compounded a humanitarian crisis and an economic disaster, with tracts of the city reduced to rubble, infrastructure destroyed and thousands of people fleeing their homes.
It is still possible that Iraqi government forces, albeit with heavy support from Shia militia, can retake the city from ISIS fighters. But it will be if anything a tougher battle than that for Tikrit. In the meantime, ISIS is crowing about its most notable victory in Iraq since it stormed south in the summer of 2014.
Among the many lessons to be drawn from the last few days in Ramadi are:
The Iraqi army is still a work in (slow) progress
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have a long way to go to be considered an effective fighting force. U.S. trainers have begun reshaping the Iraqi army, with some 7,000 troops trained so far and another 3,000 to 4,000 in the pipeline.
But for now, there are few effective units. The Iraqi army is over-reliant on elite units like the Golden Division (which was itself part of the chaotic retreat from Ramadi), and despite efforts by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to shake up the military top brass, many units still suffer from desertion and poor morale.
The ineffectiveness of ISF is compounded by commanders’ lack of faith in the government. Last month, ISIS seized a key Iraqi army base at Thirthar Lake, 25 km (15 miles) north of Ramadi. The army’s 4th Regiment had been desperately hanging on for promised reinforcements before being overrun.
Similarly, after Iraqi units were evicted from Ramadi, one local official – Ibrahim Hassan Khalaf al-Fahdawi – said the city had fallen because of false promises of reinforcements from the government.
“If 10% of the government’s promises had been implemented, Ramadi would still in our hands and ISIS wouldn’t dare to be anywhere near the city,” al Fahdawi, head of Khalidiya’s Security Council, told CNN.
For more than a year, police and army units had defended the government complex in Ramadi against repeated ISIS attacks, some of the more recent assaults involving tunnels. Despite the obvious and continuing threat to these facilities, reinforcements sufficient to repel ISIS never materialized.
Airstrikes are not enough
ISIS has also learned to cope with — or at least mitigate — the damage inflicted by coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. In recent days, U.S. airpower was brought to bear against ISIS in and around Ramadi, and strikes continued after the city fell. But in the three weeks leading up to the city’s fall, there were about 35 airstrikes – hardly enough to deter a determined assault on a city that once had 800,000 inhabitants.
The rules of engagement, which include getting approval for strikes from the Iraqi authorities and an emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties, make operating in urban areas more challenging. Additionally, the United States has previously refused to support operations by militia not controlled by the central government with airstrikes. That insistence may need to be modified if Ramadi is to be won back anytime soon.
Ten months of airstrikes has certainly affected ISIS’ ability to move forces and supplies across Iraq, but it has adapted by digging (and even publicizing) underground positions in places like Fallujah. It used a network of tunnels to help defend Tikrit and constructed a complex of bunkers south of Mosul. ISIS has also learned to use weather conditions – such as low cloud, fog or sandstorms – as protection from strikes.
However, the United States has repeatedly insisted it will not introduce combat troops into Iraq, so training up Iraqi units as quickly as possible is vital. The Pentagon, in a recent submission to Congress, acknowledged that “U.S. assistance levels are limited and focus on bridging the most critical near-term capabilities consistent with countering ISIL,” as ISIS is often called.
ISIS is resilient, adaptive, calculating
ISIS has seen plenty of military setbacks in recent months: at Kobani in Syria, to the north and east of Mosul where Kurdish peshmerga made widespread territorial gains, and in Diyala province north of Baghdad. The ultimately successful Iraqi offensive against Tikrit in March was its most obvious single defeat.
But ISIS only retreated from Tikrit after the stalled Iraqi offensive received support from U.S. airstrikes late in March. On the ground, much of the heavy lifting was done by Shia militia, advised and led by Iranian officers. And yet ISIS fighters, estimated in their hundreds rather than thousands, still held on for several weeks before quitting the city.
ISIS’ response to Tikrit has been new offensives in Iraq, including around the Baiji refinery and now Ramadi. It has continued its tactic of stretching Iraqi forces with multiple, simultaneous attacks in different areas – using great mobility – to keep Iraqi forces off-balance. In the run-up to the Ramadi assault, these diversionary attacks were stepped up.
ISIS has relied heavily on vehicle-borne suicide bombings to break down ISF defenses, as well as snipers and street-to-street fighting. Ramadi was a meticulously planned and complex operation, and the willingness of ISIS to take casualties as well as its merciless treatment of enemies appears to have sapped the morale of Iraqi forces.
Iraqi officials say that ISIS now controls as much as 80%of Anbar province, a huge area of desert stretching toward the Jordanian and Saudi borders. It is a region where ISIS has had a presence for nearly two years. It first appeared at anti-government protests in Ramadi late in 2013.
By shifting its focus south and west in Iraq, ISIS has also solidified the main axis of communication between its territory in Iraq and Syria. In a report analyzing the implications of Ramadi’s fall, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said it “strengthens ISIS’s military posture in western Iraq and places ISIS in a position to dictate the terms of battle elsewhere in Anbar province.” It also makes isolated Iraqi units — in places like the vast al-Asad base north of Ramadi — more vulnerable. And it may lead to further attacks on Jordanian and Saudi border posts.
ISIS has regained momentum, and as Iraqi commanders deal with the fallout from Ramadi it may use that momentum to press attacks around Baiji and even closer to Baghdad – although US officials maintain there is no threat to the capital. It has already begun to exploit Ramadi in propaganda terms, publishing videos of celebrations in other parts of Iraq it controls.
Shia / Sunni mistrust is still ISIS’ best friend
To some degree, ISIS is as strong as its opponents allow it to be. The Iraqi government has until now not included Shia militia — also known as Popular Mobilization Units — in its Anbar operations. It is sensitive to allegations of human rights abuses by these militia in largely Sunni districts during the Tikrit offensive, and aware that the presence of such troops in the Sunni heartland of Anbar might backfire.
Even so, the wariness of Anbar’s Sunni tribes of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad has meant that not all of them have supported efforts against ISIS in the province. In part this is born out of fear of ISIS’ vengeance and out of past experience – when promises of weapons and help from Baghdad have not materialized. But it has meant that the battle against ISIS in Anbar has been largely carried by the ISF and Iraqi police.
The Iraqi military’s setbacks may also push the government to rely even more on Iranian advice and support. As Ramadi fell, the Iranian Defense Minister, General Dossein Dehghan, arrived in Baghdad for talks with Prime Minister Abadi. But that reliance will only further alienate many Sunnis.
To the ISW, Abadi’s call for the help of the Shia militia in Anbar “bolsters the narrative that the militias are the true defenders of Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition irrelevant.”
For its part, ISIS is likely to use the arrival of Shia militia in Anbar as both a warning and rallying call to wavering Sunnis in the province.
The role of Shia militia, and their Iranian backers, is already becoming part of Washington politics. “Whatever operational success (Shi’ite) militias may have in Anbar would be far exceeded by the strategic damage caused by their violent sectarianism and the fear and suspicion it breeds among Iraqi Sunnis,” said Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham Monday.
Iraq’s multiple crises are deepening
Over the last 12 months, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled their homes: Yazidis, Christians and Kurds in the north, Sunnis and some Shia communities around Baghdad. The country is littered with camps for the displaced. According to U.N. agencies, nearly 25,000 civilians have fled Ramadi in recent days, in addition to some 130,000 who left during earlier fighting in April.
The towns between Ramadi and Baghdad are now crowded with the displaced.
The city they have left behind is in ruins. Other towns across Iraq have been extensively damaged, including dozens of villages recaptured by Kurdish forces north of Mosul. Infrastructure, such as oil refineries and wells, bridges and railroads have been destroyed – often by ISIS to deny movement to their enemies. The costs of reconstruction, at a time when oil revenues have sharply declined, is likely measured in billions of dollars.
What U.S. officials describe as the “ebb and flow” of the conflict is costing millions of dollars in economic damage. According to the United Nations, “more than 2.5 million displaced persons and refugees are receiving assistance each month from U.N. agencies and front-line partners.”
Even before ISIS’ gains can be reversed, more fighting will bring more civilian casualties and more damage. ISIS fighters loot and burn the homes of officials and Sunni tribes that have opposed them.
The loss of Ramadi may also add fuel to dissent in Baghdad about Prime Minister Abadi’s leadership. His predecessor, Nouri al Maliki, has been critical of previous battlefield reverses. And while the U.S. wants Abadi to be a more inclusive leader, working with Sunni and Kurdish minorities, other Shi’ites — including many within his own party — see that as weakness.
For now an uneasy combination of Shia militia, Sunni tribal fighters and Iraqi federal police have established defensive positions some 15 km (10 miles) east of Ramadi. This is a big and potentially combustible change on the battlefield. As late as April, U.S. officials and analysts were predicting that the burden of liberating Anbar would fall on the Iraqi army and Sunni tribal fighters.
Resupplying these units has become more hazardous as ISIS takes more ground in Anbar; earlier this month it captured a strategic government position near Fallujah.
If Tikrit is any guide, taking back Ramadi would involve heavy fighting against well-entrenched defenses and dealing with dozens of IEDs. ISIS has shown that it can both attack and defend with a small band of highly-motivated fighters.
It also appears to have captured a great deal of weaponry in this latest offensive, including rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns. And Ramadi is much bigger than Tikrit.
Commentary on ISIS in both Syria and Iraq — among officials and others — tends to veer from the overly-optimistic to the excessively gloomy. In February, President Obama declared that “ISIS is on the defensive, and ISIS is going to lose.”
There was talk of an imminent offensive to retake Mosul. In April, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren commented that “the ISF and coalition airpower have unquestionably inflicted damage on ISIL and began to push ISIL back.” At that point, both the Iraqi government and the coalition were looking to build on Tikrit.
Now, U.S. officials describe ISIS’ seizure of Ramadi as a “setback” rather than anything more damaging. “This is one fight, one episode, in which Iraqi Security Forces were not able to prevail — today,” said Warren on Monday.
But at other times, Warren and others have acknowledged that the war against ISIS will be a grinding campaign whose progress will often be difficult to measure, and which may last years.
While defeat in Ramadi has hardly come out of the blue, it’s a brutal reminder of the long slog ahead — one that may yet challenge Iraq’s viability as a state. Even if the territory of the “Caliphate” is recaptured, ISIS would likely revert to a classic guerrilla strategy of sabotage and suicide bombings.
In a new report for the Institute for the Study of War, Jessica McFate concludes: “The only way to defeat ISIS … is to guarantee a ground force that will occupy, secure and rebuild Syria, and Iraq to a lesser extent.”
In both countries, such a force seems a distant dream, and ISIS knows it.