May 20, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Fall of Ramadi

• The Islamic State is understandably jubilant at its capture of Ramadi; the loss is a real blow to the Iraqi government and will set back the development of an effective national army

• The Islamic State will try to threaten U.S. personnel at al-Assad airbase, though without much hope of success

• In the meantime, if Shi’a militias can recapture Ramadi, it will merely create another problem

• The neighboring countries will continue to see developments in Iraq as a zero-sum game.


There have been widespread celebrations in areas under the control of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria to mark the fall of Ramadi, and with good reason; almost all of Anbar province, a huge—though relatively poor—chunk of Iraq, is now in the group's hands. Conversely, there has been anguish and hand-wringing in Baghdad and some allied capitals, though not all. Tehran for one will see both advantages and disadvantages from the latest events.

Both symbolically and practically, the capture of Ramadi is of great importance to the Islamic State. Everyone likes to back a winner, and the group had recently begun to lose some of its luster as an apparently unstoppable force. The capture of Ramadi outweighs the loss of Tikrit and setbacks elsewhere. It has provided a needed boost to morale and will likely lead to more recruits. The victory has also resulted in more weapons and other resources falling into the group's hands. Islamic State fighters have posted videos of the amount of freshly supplied U.S. weaponry and materiel they have captured, and there will be rich pickings as well from banks and the properties of government supporters who have fled or been killed. In addition to the new arms supplies, the fall of Ramadi has allowed the the group to set free around 400 prisoners, including Islamic State commanders, who will be keen fighters in the months ahead.

In Baghdad, the loss of Ramadi will be a blow to the faltering prestige of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. He had agreed to keep the Popular Mobilization Forces, as the Shi’a militias are known, in the background at the request of the U.S. and Sunni leaders, but the Iraqi Security Forces proved no match for more determined Islamic State fighters, although they outnumbered them and fought from defensive positions. The Islamic State has by now perfected its sequential tactics of infiltration, terrorist attacks and assassinations, assault by suicide bombers—28 VBIEDs in three days in the case of Ramadi—and then a wave of attacks from all directions showing no mercy to the defenders. Even with effective air power, these tactics are hard to counter, but the Islamic State took advantage of a sandstorm to mount its final assault and was well prepared to push government forces from their strongholds.

This defeat suggests that it will still be many months before the Iraqi Security Forces are ready to take back the initiative and will further delay a campaign to recover Mosul. At present, Sunni tribes in Anbar loyal to Abadi have asked for help from the Popular Mobilization Forces in pushing the Islamic State out of Ramadi to save whatever remains of their families and property before they are all destroyed. But even if the Shi’a militias are able to recapture the town, then what? It is unlikely that the population would relish being ruled by Shi’a overlords any more than they would by the Islamic State, but there are no other options. It is one or the other. The Islamic State would stay on the outskirts of town, and probably remain in significant numbers inside, until they could once again move forward.

Some miles back up the road towards Syria lies the al-Assad air base—the last remaining stronghold in Anbar still in government hands. There is little chance of it falling, though the Islamic State launched a series of suicide attacks against it in February. Al-Assad will provide a strategic hub for operations against the Islamic State and is home to about 300 of the U.S. servicemen who are in Iraq to help train Iraqis and run the air campaign. As such, it makes an irresistible target for the Islamic State and may be the target of further probing attacks to ensure that Washington planners and politicians are kept sufficiently on edge. The Islamic State suffers from airstrikes more than anything else and will do whatever it can to reduce the appetite for risk among U.S. policy makers.

This will suit Iran as well. Although the main Shi’a militias, such as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Kataib Hizballah, have declared that they are servants of the Iraqi government, few in the Sunni community would trust them to remain so, and might even ask if they are referring to the present government or the previous government of Nouri al-Maliki. These militias are stronger and better trained than the Iraqi Army, and even if they were able to take Ramadi and then withdraw, their victory would be a humiliation that would further slow the development of a truly national force. Furthermore, Iran would have demonstrated that the security of non-Shi’a areas of the country was ultimately dependent on the cooperation of Tehran.

And anything that suits Iran will play badly in the capitals of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, except perhaps Oman, which takes a longer view. The GCC can probably accept the fall of Ramadi with a degree of equanimity as it further involves the Islamic State with the tedium and moderating influence of government, and keeps it in Iraq rather than seeking room to expand elsewhere. But that is a short-term policy when dealing with a movement that has no respect for international borders.

The fall of Ramadi is a reminder of just how broken and complicated Iraq has become. Not yet on the scale of Syria, but equally intractable and threatening. If the the Islamic State’s motto is ‘remaining and expanding,’ this is also a good description of the problems of the Middle East.


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