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Outside the Box: Is There More to Ramadi than Meets the Eye?

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The Islamic State has been celebrating a run of good news over the past two weeks, raising serious concerns about the viability of the Allied strategy of containment and roll-back using only indigenous forces.

  • Between the 14th and 17th of May, the Islamic State launched an assault on Iraqi government positions in the strategic city of Ramadi, 80 miles from Baghdad[1]. Their forces rapidly overran the city which had been contested since October 2014;
  • On the 20th of May, officials of the Assad regime acknowledged that they had lost control of northern Palmyra to forces of the Islamic State[2]. The Syrian Army has since evacuated the rest of the city.

Both events are important victories for the Islamic State, which had recently suffered recent reverses. In April, Iraqi government forces had successfully retaken Tikrit from the enemy while inflicting approximately 1,000 casualties[3]. Even though the defenders inflicted heavier casualties than they suffered, this is not the sort of attrition warfare that the Islamic State wishes to engage in. The Iraqis have the manpower resources to trade soldier 10:1 with the insurgents if it were necessary. On the 17th of May, the US announced that Special Forces had conducted a raid into Syria, killing a senior IS Commander Abu Sayyef and capturing his wife[4].

palmyra

The capture of Ramadi allows the Islamic State to regain its balance in the disputed Anbar Province, where the government holds perhaps 30% of the territory. Meanwhile, Palmyra offers the jihadists a highly strategic, centrally located base of operations from which to conduct further attacks into the more heavily populated regions of Syria. Palmyra also cuts of units of the Syrian Army in the Deir el-Zour region making their supply or withdrawal improbable and their eventual surrender likely. Most importantly of all, the Islamic State needs to win victories and expand its territory in order to fulfill its self-imposed conditions as the new Caliphate: thus proving that it is indeed favored by Allah. The more victories it wins, the more recruits flow in; defeat or even stalemate would dry up the flow of volunteers and become self-reinforcing.

These victories have therefore been timely, allowing the Islamic State to demonstrate that it is not a lost cause; perhaps even to crow a bit at the unbelievers who thought were going down in defeat. “The unbelievers plotted and God plotted, and God is the best of plotters.[5]

islamicstate

The fall of Palmyra was the exploitation of a weakness in the Syrian Army’s positions in the city. Other Syrian rebel factions had been winning ground in the province of Idlib and because Homs Province appeared to be relatively quiet, Assad’s generals pulled out some of their elite units and transferred them to Idlib. The withdrawal of the Tiger Forces, Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Falcons) and the 106th Republican Brigade[6] created a gap that the Islamic State forces exploited. Nor did the transfer aid the embattled government forces; Idlib fell to al Nusra forces on the 27th of May.

Ramadi fell even though it was held by a numerically superior force of the Iraqi Army[7]; and it fell in four days. The mainstream narrative has been that the Iraqi units in Ramadi were – in military terms – a bunch of yahoos, an undisciplined and demoralized rabble that broke as soon as a few black-clad fighters appeared on the streets. The rebels also made excellent use of innovative tactics, infiltration and natural conditions: they prepared armored bulldozers packed with explosives to destroy the government barriers and first line defensive positions; they were able to infiltrate government lines and plant demolitions and IEDs in key locations; and they took advantage of a sandstorm that grounded coalition aircraft to close with and engage their enemies.

ramadi

Yet there are a number of circumstances attending this defeat that ought to raise suspicions:

  • The government garrison had repulsed numerous attempts to overwhelm them by the jihadists over the course of the past 7 months without breaking and running;
  • There is testimonial evidence that Iraqi units withdrew under orders even as others were engaged in heavy combat, not shattered and demoralized[8];
  • There was no effort to reinforce or resupply the defenders, many of whom apparently pulled out only when they ran out of munitions;
  • During the four days of combat, Coalition aircraft conducted 19 sorties against IS forces. Nineteen. Even granting that weather conditions made combat flights impossible on one of the days, that is a paltry level of support for a strategically located city. US commanders in Iraq say they responded to every request for an air mission, which leads one to conclude that the Iraqis simply didn’t request many airstrikes;
  • The Iraqi government announced within 48 hours of the fall of the city that it was preparing a counter offensive and massing Shiite militias in the Al Habbaniyah military base. That would be very unusual for a force that has fled in disorder: it would take days just to regroup and reorganize men into their units after they had been turned into a rabble. Resupplying them and restoring some semblance of moral and discipline would take many more days, if not weeks. It seems improbable that the Iraqi Army could have accomplished such a feat so quickly if it had truly been routed.

ramadimap

There are counter-arguments to be sure: there were no reinforcements because the Iraqi Army was already committed to Tikrit, up the Tigris Valley to the north of Baghdad; the unusual withdrawal of some units while others stayed was due to confusion and a failure of leadership in the Army’s officer corps; more airstrikes weren’t called because the proximity of the opposing forces in the close combat prevented coalition pilots from safely marking enemies from friendlies. All of these are possible, and in war even the simplest task is made difficult[9]. But there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to think that there is more to the fall of Ramadi than meets the eye.

Is it possible that the Iraqi government willingly abandoned the city? There are plausible arguments for them to do so:

  1. On the most straightforward level, the Iraqis might be drawing the Islamic State into a baited trap. Let them take Ramadi, sending more of their best, irreplaceable fighters into the city in triumph, and then envelope them with the same Army units that had just retreated, reinforced by Shiite militias. This envelopment was the strategy that worked in Tikrit; and though very bloody, it proved effective.This strategy would make sense: rather than playing hide and seek with ISIS in the towns and villages of Anbar, gather the enemy in a few key “prestige” cities and then grind them down. Attritional warfare at its worst, in urban terrain: but the Iraqis have many more men to feed into the maw of war than ISIS does. It would be a winning exchange for them. This is similar to the Soviet strategy against the German 6th Army at Stalingrad.

The Iraqi government is predominantly Shia, while the Iraqi Army is notionally a mixed force. Shiite government officials may have an interest in discrediting the Iraqi Army:

  1. If the Iraqi Army is continually shown to be FUBAR – undisciplined and unreliable – while the Shiite militias show their fighting qualities, then the United States might begin shifting more and more weapons and equipment to the militias. After all, the military aid being provided is not unlimited and the Americans are not particularly keen to see brand new gear abandoned to the Islamic State. That would improve the capabilities of the militias and make them a far more formidable force in the post-war ordering of Iraq…because they are obviously not going to give the gear back;
  2. In a similar vein, the Iraqi government may want to have the Shiite militias more involved in the capture and holding of towns in the Sunni corridors of Anbar. Although this runs the risk of provoking an even worse Sunni backlash, the government might consider it an opportunity: after all, civilians decamp en masse every time a battle is about to break out. If the Sunnis leave to become refugees in their own country, or are killed, who is to say that it won’t be Shiite families – the families of the militiamen sent to recapture and then occupy these towns – who end up resettling there? Could this be the prelude to an ethnic cleansing campaign on the sly? It would be very clever: to get the Islamic State to do the cleansing for you and draw all the opprobrium. It’s not as if anyone has any illusions left about the genocidal glee of the warriors of the new Caliphate;
  3. A less sinister possibility is that the Iraqis want to exert political pressure on the Americans. By making it seem that there is a possibility of an Islamic State triumph and by showing the unreliability of the Iraqi regular forces, the probability of American boots on the ground goes up. Every new city with black flags over it makes it more likely that Republicans in Congress –and many Democrats – demand that the President take decisive action. That means the 101st, the 82nd, 1st Armored, the Marines… While this would be a terrible idea for Mr. Obama to give into, it might be in the Iraqi government’s interest to have the Americans do the dying.

This remains highly speculative and perhaps I have merely developed trust issues as I’ve grown older. Much will be made clear in the manner that the Iraqis respond to the defeat in Ramadi and whether they are able to sustain the pace of operations in other parts of the country.

The Islamic State remains formidable, but its prowess should not be overrated either. The President’s refusal to commit American ground forces remains the correct one. It is a longer road to attrite IS forces from the air while building up the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, but it is better than committing ground troops again. US forces could defeat ISIS militarily, but there would be no political solution so long as Syria remains submerged in anarchy[10] and the Iraqi government remains so blatantly sectarian. Until those circumstances are resolved, a US intervention would not be a solution, only a palliative.


 

Sources and Notes

[1] Kevin Rawlinson, “ISIS takes Iraqi city of Ramadi,” The Guardian, 18 May 2015

[2] Kareem Shaheen, “Palmyra: historic Syrian city falls under control of ISIS,” The Guardian, 21 May 2015

[3] Joseph Micallef, “Lessons From the Second Battle of Tikrit: March 2-April 4 2015,” Huffington Post, 12 April 2015

[4] Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Special Forces Kill Senior ISIS Leader in Syria, Capture His Wife,” The Wall Street Journal, 17 May 2015

[5] Ayat al-Imran 3:54, Koran

[6] “The Islamic State’s Gains Mask Its Weakness,” Stratfor, 20 May 2015

[7] Luis Martínez, “Ramadi Fell to ISIS Fighters Even Though They Were ‘Vastly Outnumbered’ by Iraqi Troops,” ABC News, 26 May 2015

[8] Arwa Damon and Hamdi Alkhshali, “Inside the battle for Ramadi: Iraqi soldier recalls the battle with ISIS,” CNN, 26 May 2015

[9] Karl von Clauswitz,”On War”

[10] My recommendation is that we deal with Assad, who is a devil, but the devil we know. The ones who may follow him might very well be worse. There are no liberal democrats waiting to take over in Syria. Fernando Betancor, “Outside the Box: Is It Time to Deal with Assad?,” Common Sense, 19 August 2014

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