May 19, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Containment Falters in Iraq

• The Islamic State’s takeover of Ramadi, nearly a year after its takeover of the still-occupied Mosul, shows the policy of containing the group with airstrikes until Iraqi forces rise to the occasion is collapsing

• One issue is that the area of containment is simply too large, as it essentially comprises most of central and western Iraq, to say nothing of Syria; another issue is that time is on the Islamic State’s side, as suffering and sectarianism create more instability and resentment which the group feeds on

• The policy of containment was also predicated on Sunni opposition that remains somewhat muted and most certainly unarmed, and the Iraqi security forces are still outgunned in vulnerable locations

• The rapid takeover of Ramadi by the Islamic State was actually years in the making, as the group never left the neighborhood and surrounding areas after 2006.


Last summer when the Islamic State stormed into Mosul, the best approach at the time was a policy of containment. This was at heart a policy of playing for time by containing the group through airstrikes while the Iraqi security forces improved to the level they could reverse the Islamic State’s gains. This process was never going to be quick or easy, but as long as the containment held, the policy could be justified, though at the cost of those still suffering at the hands of the Islamic State.

With the takeover of the provincial capital of Ramadi, the Islamic State has shown that it is contained in an unacceptably broad definition. The basic issue is that the group is contained in a ‘box’ called ‘Iraq’ within which is is still able to plan, plot, equip, and attack. The group hasn’t been sufficiently separated from the population or resources enough to weaken it to the point where it can be dislodged. Rather, the group that was supposed to be entirely on defense by now still maintains the ability of offense. In Ramadi, the group was able to execute almost 30 car bombings against Iraqi security forces, showing how much freedom the ‘contained’ group still has.

It doesn’t matter if the Islamic State can’t long hold onto the center of Ramadi. It needs to simply prove the Iraqi security forces once again could not. As long as it continues to delegitimize the national government by showing its inability to hold Iraqi territory, it wins by driving the vulnerable people further away from the government. The Iraqi forces that left Ramadi this weekend did so under great pressure and only as a last resort; it is not bravery the forces lacked but weapons and leadership and rapid logistics. This shortfall will be slower to remedy than believed, which threatens the entire premise of the containment policy.

The difficulty for the U.S. is that containment of the Islamic State via airstrikes was always a temporary measure until both the Iraqi security forces improve and Iraqi politics become inclusive. It’s been 284 days since the U.S. began airstrikes designed to buy time, and it is undeniable that the group has been hurt in certain places and at certain times. The group’s momentum was indeed halted but the issues that gave rise to the current horrors are far too deep-seated and broad to be solved by temporary measures and the occasional influx of divisive militias. Ramadi shows the limits of the current approach.

As Shi’a militias now gather to the east of Ramadi in order to retake the city, there is widespread concern about how they will be received by the majority Sunni population that has no love for the Islamic State but perhaps even less for the Shi’a militias and the Baghdad government. Despite fears of constant inferno, Iraq has actually resisted the sectarian war that the Islamic State has tried to ignite for the last year, even after the Tikrit campaign. The U.S. has opposed in general the use of Shi’a militia in Sunni areas, and Anbar is the Sunni heartland. If sectarian conflict erupts anywhere, it would be in Anbar and among the Sunni who feel betrayed by both the Iraqi government and the United States. But Anbar officials have called for Shi’a help because they feel the situation warrants any alliance that can be formed to push back the Islamic State. Yet again, this would be a temporary arrangement fraught with challenges.

The anti-Islamic State containment policy is now analogous to using a fire extinguisher to fight a fire that has an unending supply of gasoline. The Islamic State wants nothing more than to be seen fighting U.S. troops in Iraq once again, as visibly fighting foreign troops would be the only way to improve its waning popularity. With Shi’a militia support and U.S. airstrikes, Ramadi might be retaken sooner rather than later, as there are only 400 Islamic State fighters in the city. The larger issue is that the group controls the countryside around Ramadi.


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