Ramadi in Context: Insurgents Not Resurging

In what was a major setback to a government offensive to retake control of Anbar province, Iraqi security forces fled Ramadi as militants of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) took full control of the provincial capital city on May 17. Seen as a major embarrassment for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the loss of Ramadi has raised skepticism over the readiness of Iraqi security forces and the effectiveness of the current US military strategy centered on air strikes, advising, and training those security forces.

Last March, following a victory in recapturing the city of Tikrit, Abadi—aiming to consolidate his political power—boldly announced that the next offensive would liberate Anbar province from ISIS. The operation would consist of mainly Iraqi security forces, in cooperation with Sunni tribes and the assistance of US airpower. Unfortunately, the retreating Iraqi forces and the ineffectiveness of US air strikes in Ramadi has now forced Abadi to again turn to Shia militias to help roll back ISIS’s gains.

The plan to arm the Sunni Arab tribesmen never materialized due to Shia Arab concerns with empowering Sunni Arab militias. Last week, Nineveh Governor Atheel al-Nujaifi and former Deputy Prime Minister Rafi al-Essawi had travelled to Washington to lobby US officials either to increase pressure on Baghdad to arm the Sunni tribes or to arm the Sunnis directly. The visit had followed a Kurdish delegation to Washington led by Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, who complained to US officials that Baghdad had obstructed or prohibited the flow of arms to the Kurds.

The international media has pointed to the fall of Ramadi as direct evidence that ISIS is on the rise amid a failing US military strategy to counter its territorial expansion and growing strength. The retreating Iraqi security forces left behind US-made tanks, armored personnel carriers, and Humvees. In a common strategy to replenish its ranks, ISIS has reportedly freed militants held in prison. “All of the 400 prisoners were affiliated with ISIS militias, including fighters and dangerous leaders who have been previously held captive by Iraqi security forces in Ramadi,” said a provincial security source to a Kurdish media outlet. Without a doubt, the capture of Ramadi will give ISIS more firepower in the short-run, but it is unclear whether it will work in its favor in the long-term.

While ISIS has gained new material capabilities and human resources, its victory in Ramadi is not necessarily indicative of its ascendancy. The offensive in Ramadi does not necessarily highlight ISIS’s strength, but rather an ebb-and-flow pattern of war that is more indicative of its overall and gradual decline in Iraq. While this seems counterintuitive in the context of ISIS’s capture of a major city amid fleeing government forces, it is important to consider the strategic context of its victory and the likely reactions it will elicit.

For one, the city of Ramadi did not suddenly swing from government-control to insurgent-control. Indeed, it is inaccurate to assume that the government in Baghdad was ever in control of the area in the first place. Since late December 2013 and early January 2014, both Ramadi and the Anbar city of Fallujah have been contested cities as ISIS militants pushed into Iraq following territorial losses in neighboring Syria. The Anbar province, which had served as the epicenter of the Sunni Arab insurgency over the course of the US military occupation, has long had a hostile relationship with the Shia-dominated central government and serves as fertile ground for Sunni militarism.

Secondly, one cannot gauge ISIS’s strength as an insurgent group by the weaknesses and inherent disadvantages of its opponents within the particular contextual environment. ISIS has no real Sunni insurgent rivals. Despite being a small fraction of the overall insurgency during the fall of Mosul last June, the group has now consolidated the insurgent landscape. Meanwhile, the Iraqi security forces remain a weak national institution and lack the motivation to fight and die in any attempt to liberate Sunni territory. The local Sunni population largely considers a national security presence in Anbar unnatural and driven by sectarian motives, preferring protection from localized security forces. In addition, intra-Sunni rivalries and a breakdown in tribal structures have caused splits, with some tribesmen supporting ISIS and others fighting against it (the latter complains of being inadequately equipped by the Abadi government).

Finally, ISIS’s capture of the capital of Anbar follows territorial losses in Salahadin and Diyala provinces and the group’s proven inability to penetrate densely populated Kurdish and Shia areas. Indeed, clear relative strength—and a more accurate assessment of the group’s continuing ascendancy—would have been exhibited had ISIS militants expanded their control and operations outside Sunni inhabited areas in Iraq. But as seen over the course of the war since the summer of 2014, ISIS has failed to push its borders across sectarian boundaries, unable to capture and hold Kurdish and Shia-populated territory.

Nevertheless, despite the over significance placed on ISIS’s capture of Ramadi, the event has already done damage to Abadi’s political brand in Baghdad, making him more reliant on Shia militias. It has also raised skepticism over the current US strategy in Washington, most likely complicating and postponing plans to retake the city of Mosul.

The loss of Ramadi appears to have altered the White House’s position vis-a-vis the Shia militias. Unlike during the Tikrit offensive, whereby the US largely sat on the sidelines given the heavy involvement of militia forces, the US military is now willing to continue its bombing campaign against ISIS targets as long as those militia forces are integrated within a command-and-control structure that answers to the central government. According to a White House statement, Baghdad has approved to “accelerate the training and equipping of local tribes in coordination with Anbar authorities” with the aim to “develop a consolidated plan to retake Ramadi with all associated forces acting under Iraqi command.” While this should have been a step taken long ago, only time will tell if the Iraqis can act in a concerted effort, especially since political rivalries and competition over prestige and electoral potential overshadow the fight against ISIS.

Ramzy Mardini is a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Displaced Sunni people, who fled the violence in the city of Ramadi, arrive at the outskirts of Baghdad, May 19, 2015. (Reuters)