January 10, 2016

After Ramadi - the long road to Mosul

Iraqi armor moving through what is left of al-Ramadi, Iraq

Now that the Iraqi security forces have retaken the city of al-Ramadi (Ramadi) from the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Iraqi leadership has set its sights on the liberation of al-Mawsil (Mosul), the country's second largest city. Mosul has been in ISIS hands since the group seized the city in June of 2014 - with almost no resistance from a large Iraqi Army force in the city that collapsed in the presence of the ISIS fighters.

The battle to retake Mosul from entrenched, motivated ISIS fighters who have had 18 months thus far to prepare their defenses will not be easy. Although Iraqi senior military officers assert that they will recapture Mosul by the end of 2016, I have doubts that the Iraqi forces will be in a position to launch an attack that soon.

Before the Iraqis move north for a battle to retake Mosul, they first must consolidate their control over al-Anbar province. That means retaking the city of al-Fallujah (Fallujah), just over 35 miles west of Baghdad, and securing the strategic dam and city of Hadithah, 90 miles west of Ramadi. Almost immediately after ISIS began its retreat from Ramadi, the group launched an attack on Hadithah - the area is now contested. This underscores ISIS's continuing ability to mount offensive operations despite recent setbacks.

Before we talk about the challenges the Iraqis will face in mounting an operation to retake Mosul, let's look at some factors that worked in their favor in the battle for Ramadi.

The Iraqi Army has undergone a fundamental transformation since the virtual collapse of their forces in 2014. The American-provided training has refocused the Iraqi military from counterterrorism and asymmetric warfare to more conventional force-on-force fighting. Rather than treating ISIS as a group of terrorists, the new Iraqi model is to deal with them as an opposing army. Although ISIS uses terrorist tactics - suicide bombers and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in large numbers - they have been integrated rather effectively into conventional military operations to take and hold territory.

To complement the new operational focus, the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government under Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has moved beyond the short-sighted policies of the Nuri al-Maliki administration, at least in the retaking of Ramadi. Unlike the earlier battles in Tikrit and Bayji, the Iraqis did not rely on the Iranian-backed - and I suspect Iranian-led - Iraqi Shi'a militias to do the bulk of the front-line fighting. In Ramadi, the Iraqi Army's elite units and the independent Iraqi Counterterrorism Service were supported by Sunni tribesmen from the local area. Keeping the Shi'a militias out of the fiercely passionate Sunni heartland was wise.

This proved to be a winning combination - accommodation of the Sunni tribes is absolutely necessary for the political future of the country. If Iraq is to survive as a country in its current form, the disparate factions have to have a say in the governance of the country, despite pressure from Tehran to marginalize the Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

The fight for Ramadi is not over, but the Iraqis seem to be on the cusp of securing the area. The remaining pockets of resistance will be cleared, albeit slowly because of the hundreds of explosive devices left behind by the retreating ISIS fighters. With the inclusion of the local Sunni tribes in the operation, the Iraqis have an excellent chance of retaining control of the city.

That inclusion will be critical as the Iraqi forces turn their attention to the rest of al-Anbar province, specifically the key cities of Fallujah and Hadithah. Fallujah will likely be the next target for the Iraqis - the city sits on the Euphrates River just 40 miles west of Baghdad (Baghdad is on the Tigris River, not the Euphrates.)

Once al-Anbar is secured, or deemed secure enough that Ramadi and Fallujah are firmly under Iraqi control, the Iraqis will have to begin the effort to move north and recapture Mosul from ISIS. Mosul is ten times the size of Ramadi and 250 miles north of Baghdad on the Tigris River.

Retaking Mosul will require a huge logistics effort - virtually all of the military materiel will have to be moved up the Tigris Valley to an area south of the ISIS-controlled area. The Iraqis will then have to fight their way to Mosul and then begin the slow, painstaking operation to clear ISIS from a city they will have had over two years to prepare to defend. ISIS knew at some point they would have to fight to keep Iraq's second largest city.

This will take much longer than the Iraqis think it will. However, there are things that will make it easier - thanks mostly to the Kurds. The recent operations by the Kurdish peshmerga forces to retake the city of Sinjar and pressure Tal'afar will strain ISIS's supply lines between its facilities in Syria and Mosul.

Additionally, in Syria the newly-formed Syrian Defense Force - a loose alliance of Syrian Kurds and Sunni Arabs - has seized control of the Tishrin Dam on the Euphrates River east of Aleppo, again straining ISIS supply lines to the Turkish border.

Things may have turned around in Iraq - Ramadi is a good first step after rocky starts in Tikrit and Bayji. It will be a long, hard fight, but there is a reasonable chance that the Iraqi Army, Counterterrorism Service and the Kurdish peshmerga will prevail in time.

After the Iraqis re-establish control over their territory, then the fight to eradicate ISIS must turn to Syria - a much more difficult and confusing problem.