Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

Over the weekend, ISIS finally completed its capture of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s (if it can even still be said to be part of Iraq) Anbar Province. You may recall that a few weeks ago, Martin Dempsey argued that Ramadi wasn’t as important as, say, the oil refinery at Baiji, and in a sense I agreed (and still agree) with him. Specifically, the fall of Ramadi isn’t all that important, because Ramadi has effectively been in ISIS’s hands for months now. I’ve been seeing a lot of anxious references to ISIS being only about 100 miles outside of Baghdad “now,” as though Ramadi brought them closer to the Iraqi capital, but in fact ISIS has been far closer than 100 miles outside of Baghdad since last February, when it got control of Fallujah (well within 50 miles of Baghdad’s outskirts). Ramadi matters because it’s a major city, because ISIS fighters were once again able to seize weapons and supplies from retreating Iraqi forces, and because ISIS can now consolidate its control in Anbar and project violence out from there, but they’ve already been doing that anyway. Ramadi also matters psychologically, because its loss completely blunts any momentum that Iraqi forces might have had coming out of the recapture of Tikrit and gives ISIS a new high-profile victory to use in recruiting.

Ramadi also matters because, as Iraq analyst Joel Wing writes, its loss is causing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to panic, to abandon his plans for the Anbar campaign and to attempt to liberate Ramadi with the same kind of strategy that was used in recapturing Tikrit. And that’s terrible news. Despite the positives that should have come out of the Tikrit campaign, it can be said now that everything that happened there apart from dislodging ISIS was a disaster. “Popular mobilization” militias (al-Hashd al-Shaabi), mostly Shiʿa but not entirely, reportedly ransacked the city, behaving more like a conquering mob than a liberating army. Sunnis who remained when the city was retaken were subjected to reprisal attacks, and those who fled, either to escape from ISIS or to get out of the way of the fighting when the army and those militias began to move in, are still unable to return and may have lost everything they had. Niqash reports that Tikrit is now a “ghost town” ruled mostly by the militias, who spend their time doing some productive things (searching for and disarming remaining ISIS IEDs) and some counterproductive things (hunting down suspected ISIS collaborators and fighting with the army), but almost no time trying to rebuild the city.

Now Ramadi has fallen, and as Baghdad gears up for a counter-offensive into Anbar, it’s apparently turning to…the same militias that helped wreck the victory at Tikrit. It’s already obvious how this will play out, assuming there actually is a counter-offensive: the Iraqi forces, nominally led by the army but mostly relying on Shiʿa irregulars and US airpower, will hit ISIS. ISIS will likely fall back, as it has whenever it’s been seriously confronted, and the militias will swarm into Ramadi and probably Fallujah as well. Once there, they’ll do whatever the hell they want, because the Iraqi army can’t, or won’t (or both) do anything to stop them. Sunnis in the area will suffer reprisals for the actions of a group (ISIS) that most of them never supported in the first place, and Sunnis who have already fled will become permanently displaced. And that’s where it will end, with no further push into Anbar.

For a war whose victory depends on mobilizing Iraqi Sunnis against ISIS, repeating what happened in Tikrit is pure insanity. Writing in the Daily Beast today, Jacob Siegel and Michael Pregent argue that Baghdad’s war aims align with those of the militias and Iran — meaning that what it wants out of the fight against ISIS is to establish a safe zone around traditionally Shiʿa parts of Iraq but otherwise leave ISIS to its own devices:

The strategic goals of Baghdad are currently aligned with Iran’s: to secure infrastructure and negate Sunni threats along the Shia-sectarian fault lines in and around Baghdad, Diyala, and Salah-ad-Din. This strategy is evident in the Tikrit offensive and the commitment of limited forces for the stalled offensive in Baiji.

That’s obviously counter to America’s goal, the ultimate destruction of ISIS. It’s becoming hard to reconcile Baghdad’s strategy here in any other way. The problem, as they point out, is that really defeating ISIS is going to require arming and empowering Sunnis, both to kick ISIS out and to prevent a return to the Sunni revolt that paved the was for most of ISIS’s gains last year, but Baghdad has no interest in doing that. Or, rather, the militias and Iran have no interest in doing it, and the Abadi government is handcuffed for two reasons: one, its army just isn’t strong enough to carry out the fight without the support of the militias, most of which have at least some ties to Tehran, and two, Abadi is under constant threat of an inter-party challenge from our old pal Nouri al-Maliki, whose close ties to Iran have always been pretty apparent. These irregular forces, and even the increasingly sectarian Iraqi army, may have little interest in continuing to push north into deeply Sunni areas once they’ve established a perimeter around Baghdad and the Shiʿa south (and you can throw the Kurdish Peshmerga in here as well; it’s going to be equally hard to get them to move past the security perimeter they’ve set around Kurdish areas in the north). In this sense the ransacking of Tikrit makes some sense; Shiʿa militias would rather leave Tikrit a barren ghost town than let its Sunni population return and risk losing the buffer zone they’ve now created north of Baghdad.

None of this bodes well for dislodging ISIS from Anbar or retaking Mosul, to say the least. As long as Iraq’s security depends on localized militias who have little concern for fighting beyond their own traditional enclaves, and as long as Baghdad resists empowering Sunni militias who actually care about liberating places like Anbar from ISIS’s control, it’s going to be impossible to really drive ISIS out of these places. When Abadi replaced Maliki as PM, it was supposed to signal a new phase in relations between those Sunni Arabs and the government in Baghdad, but whether he doesn’t want to really forge a new relationship with those Sunnis or he’s politically unable to do it, Abadi has failed in this regard. The US can try to pressure him to really reach out to the Sunnis (and, while we’re at it, to build his freaking army into something that isn’t thoroughly outmatched by a bunch of Shiʿa and Kurdish irregulars), but how much? It’s not like the Obama administration is going to cut off its air campaign and potentially watch ISIS go back on the offensive (remember, Tikrit was shaping up to be a disaster for the Iraqis and their militias until Abadi appealed for US involvement), is it? There’s a proposal in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to actually divvy up Iraq’s defense aid so that a quarter of the total will be given directly to Kurdish and Arab Sunni groups rather than being filtered through Baghdad, but the administration is reportedly dead set against it. Absent that, though, what other card does the administration have to play here?

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