Iraqi forces will soon take control of Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province. As I noted before Ramadi fell to ISIS, Ramadi will play a significant role in the future of Iraq’s cross-sectarian democracy — if that comes to pass.
The Ramadi operation currently underway offers three takeaways for Iraq’s future.
1) ISIS will concede territory to retain its combat strength. Recognizing that its forces cannot win everywhere all the time, ISIS is making hard choices about military deployments. And facing a powerful alliance of Anbari tribes and Iraqi security forces in Ramadi, ISIS obviously decided that the city wasn’t worth thousands of its fighters. Still, that doesn’t mean the fight is over. As alliance forces push into central Anbar, they will face increasingly aggressive resistance from ISIS rearguard suicide forces. When the Iraqi operation concludes, ISIS will harass Ramadi with insurgent infiltrators. ISIS will also attack Iraqi forces in Ramadi to prevent them from pushing up the Euphrates river valley (toward key ISIS communications nodes on the Iraq-Syria border). These lines of communication link ISIS forces in Iraq with those in Syria. Correspondingly, ISIS will put up heavy resistance the closer Iraqi forces get to the border.
2) Iraq’s U.S.-mentored special-operations units can operate without Shia militia support. Released from the toxic politicization of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi special-operations forces are proving capable of aggressive, effective operations. But here the takeaway isn’t just who is fighting in the battle, but who is not. After all, and fortunately, the Shia militia forces are absent from this battle. I had great fears that Shia militias would commit sectarian abuses in Sunni-majority Ramadi, thus fueling the sectarian undercurrents that ISIS rides.
Instead, Iraqi forces surrounded Ramadi, weakened ISIS command-and-control structures, and then launched a multi-front assault. This strategy — straight out of the U.S. military’s urban-warfare playbook — has compressed ISIS into a death zone in the city center. American personnel in Anbar province deserve a great deal of credit; without them, what’s happening in Ramadi would have been impossible. But the fight isn’t over. As one national-security professional suggested to me, Ramadi is “a good test bed for tactics to retake Mosul.” But he also asked: “Will [Iraqi forces] be able to hold Ramadi three, six, nine months from now?”
3) This is an opportunity to address the crisis in Iraqi politics. Put simply, this alliance of tribal fighters and Iraqi forces must be used to foster greater cross-sectarian cooperation. This is a big concern. While there are opportunities for political compromise in Baghdad, escalating Iranian efforts to turn the Baghdad government into Iranian puppet regime are a major challenge. The expected victory in Ramadi must lead to two follow-on effects if Iraqi Sunnis are to mobilize long-term against ISIS. First, in order to re-consolidate the Sunni tribes’ social power and influence against ISIS, the U.S. must cajole Prime Minister Abadi into supporting tribal leaders by giving financial support and allotting them power. Iran will hate this, but until Sunnis find common cause with the Baghdad government — or at least common antipathy — ISIS will remain strong. But the opportunity is real. ISIS has shredded Anbari tribal power and dishonored Anbaris. Second, the U.S. must continue ramping up our efforts (here’s my proposal) to defeat the Islamic State. Both the San Bernardino and Paris attacks were predictable consequences of the global ISIS metastasis.
To be sure, the imminent defeat of ISIS in Ramadi will stand as an important victory. Nevertheless, it is just one battle on a global battlefield. If we fail to understand that, ISIS will continue to paint bloody red lines across the world.
— Tom Rogan is a writer for National Review Online and Opportunity Lives, a panelist on The McLaughlin Group, and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets at TomRtweets. His homepage is tomroganthinks.com.