The Obama administration’s strategy of arming and training the Iraqi armed forces to stabilize the country is a failure, and an expensive one at that having cost US taxpayers around $26 billion in aid. If some were willing to reserve judgement after the fall of Mosul – it was, after all, a shocking turn of events – the fall of Ramadi removed any shred doubt from rational minds. The Iraqi Army does not have what it takes to reverse the tide of Islamic State’s advance.
The US-led air campaign has also disappointed. After nearly a year of air strikes and, again, a hefty price tag for US taxpayers (around $8 million per day), ISIS is still as big a threat now as it was before the campaign began – maybe more so having franchised into new theaters such as Afghanistan, Libya, and Nigeria in the meantime. Once more we are seeing the limits of a military-centric strategic focused on air power; it can help halt an enemy advance, but it won’t guarantee retaking lost territory, especially without a dependable partner on the ground to ‘mop up’ and after the strikes.
These failures bring us to ISIS occupation of Ramadi, which is just 70 km from Baghdad, and a city that US soldiers fought for seven brutal months to reclaim in 2006. Ramadi’s proximity to the capital and the worrying prospect of linking up with the longstanding ISIS redoubt in Fallujah gives the matter a lot of strategic weight. Islamic State cannot be allowed to entrench itself near the heart of the Iraqi state – but what to do about it?
The answer is obvious to the authorities in Baghdad, who are opting to go with the only dependable military option available to them: the Shi’ite militias, many of which maintain close links to Iran. This has led to a brief but very public spat between the Iraqi government and Washington, which members of the Obama administration have been quick to reel in. Now the United States seems to be on board for Baghdad’s militia-centered plan to retake Ramadi, pledging to support the campaign at a coalition meeting in Paris this week.
It warrants pointing out that Washington has very little choice but to go along with the Iraqi plan at this point in the game. The dream of a professional and representative Iraqi Army is dead, and US air strikes can only go so far. Only the most rabid hawks would push for US boots on the ground now – made impossible by any combination of public opposition in the United States, fiscal constraints, and/or Iraqi resistance – and even if in some magical scenario US troops materialized, Ramadi took seven months to wrest away last time. Now it’s in terrorist hands. Again.
But perhaps the biggest reason of all why Washington can but stand aside and watch is that it is no longer the only patron in town. Iran can throw a lifeline to Baghdad if Washington tries to play hardball. Thankfully there is a little overlap in terms of goals: Tehran has a vested interested in defeating Islamic State, an outfit that poses an almost genocidal threat to the Iranian people. Unfortunately it has no such interest in fostering a vibrant and multicultural democracy in Iraq.
And this brings us to the impending operation to take back Ramadi. It may be true that the militias are the only outfit capable of doing the job, but make no mistake: this will exacerbate sectarian tensions and there will be a price to pay for it, maybe even the idea of Iraq as a nation of Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds.
A distinct lack of sensitivity is apparent even before the real fight for Ramadi begins. The Shi’ite militias have named their campaign “Labaik Ya Hussein,” or “we are at your service, Hussein” after the grandson of the Prophet Muhammed who died in the 7th century battle that opened the Shi’ite-Sunni schism in Islam. There are also reports of indiscriminate government shelling in ISIS-held Fallujah, which has led to 19 deaths and 76 injuries in the past few days.
The Sunni inhabitants of Ramadi don’t necessarily support Islamic State and its brutal interpretation of Islam, but they don’t trust the Iraqi government either after years of political marginalization following the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Yet they won’t be on the fence forever. Should the city be retaken in a blood bath and the conquering Shi’ite militias treat Ramadi residents as collaborators, it will only reinforce their feelings of alienation and fuel a cycle of reprisals and violence. This is exactly what ISIS wants, and it motivates (in part at least) the brutality towards Shi’ites and government personnel that transpires whenever the militant group takes a new city. So we can be sure that when operation “Labaik Ya Hussein” descends on Ramadi in the coming weeks, ISIS will be doing everything it can to fan the flames of hatred between the people of Ramadi and their Shi’ite liberators.
It’s a recipe for disaster but there’s not much that US planners can do about it, their hands tied by a decade of policy failings in this cradle of civilization being lost to anarchy.
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