April 15, 2015

ISIS - making a play for al-Ramadi despite air campaign

The ISIS assault on the city of al-Ramadi

The fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, more commonly called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are attempting to surround and seize the city of al-Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar governorate in western Iraq.

Despite the U.S.-led air campaign that began in August of last year - and Pentagon claims that the organization is in retreat - the Islamist group is still able to mount effective ground operations against Iraqi security forces and the disparate groups that are fighting the multi-faceted war in Syria.

Statistically, of course, the U.S. Department of Defense is correct - the air campaign has limited ISIS's ability to mass forces and has contributed to the Iraqi retaking of the city of Tikrit north of Baghdad. However, ISIS continues to launch new attacks on multiple fronts. The current fighting in Iraq is focused on al-Ramadi and the oil center of Bayji, located between Tikrit and Mosul. In Syria, ISIS has been able to attack the southern suburbs of Damascus.

The success of the recent attacks on al-Ramadi came as a surprise to the Iraqis - and the Americans advising them. As the Iraqis were finishing the long operation to retake Tikrit, ISIS moved forces to the south - despite the air attacks - and began an attempt to encircle the city. In just a few weeks, they were able to effectively seize areas to the north, east and south of the main part of al-Ramadi.

There are conflicting reports of ISIS breakthroughs into the main part of the city itself. According to media accounts, the defenders in the city are short of necessary supplies - food, water, weapons and ammunition. The only lines of communication open are to the west, but it is a long way to supporting Iraqi military units. Coalition aerial resupply will be critical.

These operations come at a time when Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi is visiting the United States, where he met with President Obama as well as Congressional leaders. The United States is in a dilemma. As long as ISIS remains a threat, the Obama Administration must continue to support the Iraqi military. That entails providing intelligence, logistics, training, advice and most importantly, air support to an Iraqi military that continues to perform abysmally.

In the battle to retake the city of Tikrit, the Iraqi armed forces relied primarily on Iranian-supported Shi'a militias, usually referred to as Popular Mobilization Units. The verbiage belies the reality that these militias are trained, equipped, advised - and led - by members of the generally capable Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force. The Qods Force commander, Major General Qassem Solimani, has been seen in various locations in Iraq advising/leading the Shi'a militias. Iranian media has reported the loss of dozens of IRGC officers in the fighting in Iraq, as well as in Syria.

All told, the performance of the Iraqi military is still disappointing. Even with the support of the Shi'a militias, they were unable to effectively force ISIS out of Tikrit. The Iraqis were forced to walk back the bravado of the Shi'a militias who claimed they did not need or want American help to retake the city. After weeks of being stalemated by a much smaller force in the city center, they had to ask for coalition (read: American) air support to rout out the last defenders.

As the U.S. Department of Defense reviewed the performance of the Iraqi forces - army, police and militias - it became apparent that the current capabilities are only marginally better than when American advisers were re-introduced into Iraq last year. It is no wonder that Prime Minister al-'Abadi was reluctant to request additional weapons from President Obama. Although the Iraqis need the weaponry, the United States rightfully is reticent to provide sophisticated, capable weapons to forces that abandoned much of the previously supplied materiel in the face of attacking ISIS forces last summer.

Tikrit was supposed to be the test of the revamped Iraqi military - it failed the test. There were claims by Iraqi officers that Tikrit was to be a short battle and a stepping stone on the way to the liberation of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul. Mosul is ten times the size of Tikrit and presents a much more difficult military challenge. The original timetable of an attack in the spring and a battle lasting a few weeks is now just a distant memory. I doubt the Iraqi military will be capable of mounting a campaign to retake Mosul in the next six months. They are still fighting over the oil refinery in Bayji, and have yet to secure al-Ramadi.

If I were the Iraqis - and hopefully the American advisers are on the same sheet of music here - I would be focusing my efforts on al-Ramadi and securing al-Anbar province. That large western province is the location of the critical Euphrates Valley - home to many powerful Sunni tribes that must be won over to support the al-'Abadi government in Baghdad. Their support will be critical to ousting ISIS from the western part of Iraq and thus freeing the Iraqi military to shift its focus to retaking Mosul and finally ejecting ISIS from the country.

If that is possible, that will solve a good portion of the ISIS threat, but not all. We still have to deal with the situation in Syria, and the other locations into which ISIS has metastasized - Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, etc. Ignoring the problem does not solve the problem, just like leaving the battlefield in 2011 did not end the war.

Step one: go take back al-Ramadi. If the Iraqis cannot do that, we face a much bigger problem, one that will likely see Chaiman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey advise the President that the time has now come for the introduction of American combat forces on the ground in Iraq. At that point, this will not be about Iraq, it will be about a threat to the United States.