From Washington to Baghdad, the United States, the Iraqi government and the 65 members of the anti-Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) coalition are breathing a sigh of relief. The town of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province and the scene of one of the worst defeats for the U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi Army, has been liberated. Given the shellacking the Administration and its supporters have received over the seeming lack of a coherent strategy, it is not surprising that the White House is almost giddy at this apparent victory. I am reminded of a line from Winston Churchill’s speech to Parliament announcing the defeat of Axis forces at the battle of El Alamein: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Perhaps, the liberation of Ramadi signals the end of the beginning in the campaign to defeat ISIS. It remains to be seen what this success portends for that broader struggle. The victory in Ramadi, such as it is, presents a number of problematic lessons not only for a White House unwavering in its commitment to avoid a deeper involvement in Iraq but also for its critics, notably those Republican candidates for President who advocate greater use of force by the United States and the coalition:
- Victory could be a matter of years, even decades. Liberating Ramadi was no easy task. It took Iraqi forces some six months to envelop the city as U.S. and coalition aircraft pounded ISIS positions and supply routes. According to reports from the field, it is expected to take an additional month to clear the city of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and some remaining pockets of ISIS fighters. Retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, could take a year or more. At this rate, it might be a decade before ISIS is driven from Iraq. Given the weakness of anti-ISIS forces in Syria, liberating that country could take even longer.
- Anti-ISIS forces have not been truly tested in combat. The Iraqi assault force was 10 or more times larger than the 600 to 1,000 ISIS fighters reported to have been in the city. Even so, the majority of these fighters escaped before the attack began, having been warned that an attack was imminent in leaflets dropped for several days by Iraqi aircraft. Like the battles for Sinjar and Tikrit, in the face of overwhelming force ISIS fighters melt away. The real test of strength between ISIS and its adversaries has yet to come. Given that credible estimates of the number of ISIS fighters range as high as 100,000, this will be quite a test.
- Iraqi forces will always be dependent on U.S./Western support. No one expects Iraq to conduct air operations like the U.S. and its allies can in numbers or sophistication. But Iraqi forces are dependent on foreign assistance for a lot more. The battle for Ramadi would not have been successful without deep and continuing U.S. involvement, by both military personnel and civilian contractors, not only in training but in such areas as operational planning, to artillery fire support coordination, logistics, aeromedical evacuation, intelligence, countering IEDs, engineering and equipment maintenance/repair. In view of the fact that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is limited both in numbers and locations, it is not clear whether the necessary level of support to Iraqi forces can be sustained as they move deeper into ISIS controlled territory.
- The loss of Ramadi may not tarnish ISIS’s brand. Despite the media attention devoted to the intensifying air campaign against ISIS, complete with video of massive explosions and plumes of smoke, the highly publicized killings of ISIS leaders and their defeats in Sinjar, Baiji and Tikrit, ISIS not only maintains substantial field forces, but continues to recruit new fighters particularly from the West. In fact, as the noose was tightening on Ramadi in mid-December, ISIS conducted a coordinated, multi-pronged offensive north of Mosul. There are reports of lots of disaffected fighters leaving ISIS but equally compelling evidence that the rate at which new fighters are recruited continues to grow.
- The Sunni-Shia schism that gave rise to ISIS is alive and well. One of the reasons it took Iraqi forces such a long time to liberate Ramadi may have been the decision to avoid the use of Shia militias or Iranian personnel in the operation. These forces were instrumental in the battles for Tikrit and Baiji. In Ramadi, there was great reliance placed on Iraqi Sunni tribal fighters. But whether the Baghdad government is able (or even willing) to forge a Sunni-based force large enough to defeat ISIS remains to be seen. In Syria, the problem of finding Sunni groups to support is well known.
Victory is always to be preferred over defeat or stalemate. But we shouldn’t make the assumption that a single victory, or even a few successes, means that the U.S. strategy is working or that the defeat of ISIS is inevitable. At best, the liberation of Ramadi signals the end of the beginning.
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