In the aftermath of ISIS’s defeat in Ramadi, there are two key questions. First, how much of the defeat can be attributed to the intervention of Shiite (Iranian-backed) militias? Second, if the Shiites weren’t dominant, does this mean the Iraqi Army is at least somewhat rejuvenated following its humiliating defeats in 2014 and 2015?
On the first question, most reporting indicates that Iranian-backed militias did not take decisive part in the fighting. There are, however, dissenting voices. Here’s Newsweek:
American commanders have been hailing the advance of the retrained Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) on Ramadi, the key city where they were easily routed some 18 months ago by marauding fighters of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).
But what they aren’t saying—and are loath to concede, according to well-informed military sources in Washington—is that the security forces of the Iran-backed regime in Baghdad largely consist of Shiite fighters in league with murderous militias that have slaughtered innocent Sunnis after ousting ISIS militants from Tikrit and other battlegrounds in the past year. Ramadi is the capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, and the Shiites are ready to pounce.
Newsweek cites former David Petraeus aide Derek Harvey:
“My sources on the ground say they [Shiite militias and sectarian fighters] are very much involved” in the offensive at Ramadi. “Some say they are not involved, because they are wearing MOI [Ministry of Interior] uniforms with MOI patches.”
But their vehicles, Harvey adds, fly Shiite militia banners, “and the people who are commanding them are still Shiite militia leaders.”
The Daily Beast, however, credits the victory not to a rejuvenated Iraqi Army or to Shiite militias, but to a combination of Iraqi special forces and coalition air strikes:
Pentagon officials hailed the U.S.-trained Iraqi army this week for retaking much of the western Iraq city of Ramadi from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
But privately, Defense Department officials tell The Daily Beast the fight for Ramadi was a long slog led not by the army, known as the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), but by an elite counterterrorism force, which itself was only able to beat ISIS with U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. The ISF, which have been the beneficiaries of years of U.S. training and funding, didn’t lead the battle, but served in a support role, pointing out ISIS positions for air attacks and holding the roads that led to the city center where troops Monday flew the Iraqi flag.
It’s one of several ways in which the simplistic narrative of the battle for Ramadi is giving way to a more nuanced story—one that presents both promise and peril as the fight against ISIS continues. For those looking for good news, there was plenty: the emergence of Iraq’s elite fighters, and the apparent absence of the Shia militias which have threatened to turn the ISIS conflict into a sectarian war.
But there was troubling news as well. The Iraqi army’s inability to lead the five-month battle for Ramadi leaves many in the Pentagon dubious of plans to liberate ISIS’s biggest Iraqi stronghold, in Mosul, despite pronouncements from Iraqi political leaders that the operation is on the horizon. The ISF can, at best, carry out the ancillary aspects of war fighting. And the elite counterterrorism unit is not large enough to do the job of liberating—and holding—multiple cities simultaneously.
Both reports illustrate the risks of delegating warfighting to unproven local allies. If Newsweek is correct, then Ramadi represents at least a partial victory for our Iranian-backed enemies, while the Daily Beast report shows that the Iraqi Army is still not ready for the kind of decisive offensive necessary to sweep ISIS out of Mosul. Effective counterinsurgency requires a force that can take and hold territory, and Mosul is a much larger city than Ramadi. Can the ISF hold on to its gains in Anbar while simultaneously striking into Mosul — all while limiting the involvement of Shiite militias? I’d like to be proven wrong, but I’m skeptical.
Ramadi’s fall is an important victory over ISIS, no doubt, but with its core cities still relatively secure, I’m concerned that ISIS will once again lash out to try to regain momentum in the propaganda war. Jihad thrives on victory, and ISIS will be looking for a post-Ramadi “win” — whether that’s on the ground in the Middle East or through high-profile terrorist attack — to maintain morale and to preserve the flow of recruits.
There are, in fact, indications that ISIS morale is eroding, with fighters fleeing the battlefield and ISIS commanders beheading alleged deserters. In war, morale can sometimes break at unpredictable times, and it is possible — though not probable — that the loss of Ramadi could assume outsize significance. Time will tell, but one thing I do know – the longer ISIS is allowed to live in its core cities, the greater the risk of serious attack here at home. Safe havens enable international terrorism.