Islamic State isn’t actually winning in Iraq

The fall of Ramadi isn’t a disaster. It’s a chance to try and bridge Iraq’s sectarian divide.

Iraqi security forces patrol as US army air force aircrafts attack Islamic State group positions in an eastern neighbourhood of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. (AP Photo)

Iraqi security forces patrol as US army air force aircrafts attack Islamic State group positions in an eastern neighbourhood of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. (AP Photo)

It didnt take long, after news broke on Sunday of the self-styled Islamic State taking control of Ramadi, for the doomsayers to go into overdrive. The fall of the key Iraqi city, the gateway to the western desert and capital of the Sunni-dominated al-Anbar province, is being billed as another sign of the strength of the worlds most violent militant group and the weakness of the forces arrayed against it.

“ISIS takes control of Ramadi, Iraqi troops flee,” an Associated Press headline read. “ISIS seizes key Iraqi city of Ramadi: What happens next?” asked CNN. The reports make it seem as if Islamic State suddenly swept into Ramadi, as it did in Mosul in June 2014, frightened away an incompetent Iraqi army, and is now poised to catapult Iraq into a final phase of implosion.

But the reality is, neither did Iraqi troops “flee,” nor did Islamic State “seize.” There are a few things wrong with the way the so-called fall of Ramadi is being portrayed.

First and foremost is the notion that this is all happening suddenly. It’s not: Islamic State has been trying to take control of al-Anbar province since 2013. The region was the stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State’s precursor. Since the onset of the Syrian civil war, Anbar has become Islamic States natural home, a vast, sparsely populated region dominated by Sunni Muslims with a long, unprotected border with Syria.

Related: Why targeted killings work against Islamic State

Ramadi occupies a key geographical position on the main road to Syria and has been in Islamic States sights for some time. Some observers have argued that the groups recent losses in other parts of Iraq—Tikrit, for instance—have enabled it to redouble its efforts to take Ramadi, which represents a much bigger strategic prize.

Those efforts began more than a year ago, prompted by a breakdown in the relationship between local Sunnis and the Shia-led Iraqi government. The single event that opened the door for Islamic State was the December 2013 arrest of Ahmed al-Alwani, a member of the Iraqi parliament and a powerful tribal leader from Ramadi, on terrorism charges.

His detention was part of a larger anti-Sunni program initiated by then-prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia infamous for his anti-Sunni policies, which included targeting powerful Sunni leaders in al-Anbar, particularly those who led Awakening Councils, the tribal militias set up with the help of the U.S. in 2006 to counter the influence of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In December 2013, the arrest of Alwani triggered a standoff between Sunni militias and Iraqi forces in Ramadi, giving Islamic State fighters the opportunity they needed to make a move on the city. While Iraqi forces and Sunni militiamen were squaring off against each other, Islamic State militants took control of several suburbs, forcing out civilians and creating an ideal setting for a guerrilla war.

Since then, Ramadi has remained a contested city, with Islamic State entrenched in an urban war that perfectly suits their style of fighting and expertise. Air assaults, carried out by the U.S.-led coalition, including Canada, are largely ineffective in such a setting, where fighters enjoy mobility and cover.

Related: Inside Canada’s new war

What’s needed are ground troops, which the Iraqi army has provided. But, as journalist Raed El-Hamed pointed out in a June 2014 analysis for the Carnegie Endowment, Islamic State militants have the advantage because of their “superior combat experience dating back to the Saddam Hussein era, and insurgency training acquired during the U.S. occupation.”

“The government troops, in comparison,” he warned, “are largely inexperienced units and are highly dependent on the [Shia] militias.”

It’s these militias that will take the fight to Islamic State in Ramadi, something current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has avoided until now. It was not until the Iraqi army was forced to retreat that Abadi gave the order for the militias to advance, asking Sunnis to fight alongside their Shia brothers against the bigger enemy.

Ramadi now faces an extremely volatile future. If the Shia militias are successful in pushing Islamic State out, will they then concede control of the city to local Sunni leaders? Some Sunnis have condemned Abadis move, characterizing it as a Shia attempt to take over Anbar; others are taking a more practical approach, agreeing to join the militia advance.

This will now be a major test of whether or not Iraq can overcome its deep sectarian divisions. Ramadis fall to Islamic State was not a demonstration of the militant group’s strength, but, rather, a symptom of the underlying systemic problems that brought Iraq to where it is now. The city now represents how successful Iraq’s new leadership has been in mending sectarian fences. Retaking it will either prove or condemn President Obama’s strategy: Can Iraqis come together for the greater good?


Islamic State isn’t actually winning in Iraq

  1. Occasionally the curtain is moved aside, and we get to share a bit of the truth. Thank you.

    • http://www.newrepublic.com/article/118794/federalism-could-save-iraq-falling-apart-due-civil-war

      The truth is out there and it has been for some time. People like you just have to do the research and find it. Iraq appears to need a three nation solution…Sunni; Shite and Kurdish if they hope to find peace. The Sunnis are afraid of ISIS but ISIS offers them protection because their low numbers don’t (remember they oppressed people under Sadam). The Shites are the majority and the Kurds are going to fight to hold onto their place in the country no matter what it takes. Maybe tune into the BBC once in a while.

  2. Another interesting article from macleans, which i discovered only lately via google news, giving there again the factual context and perspective on the topic at hand contrarily to our largely appalling, biased and/or sensationalist -Western- press. Like the previous commentator earlier, simply: thank you.

  3. ISIS controls more terrain and people now than they did last month. In a spin free world that’s winning unless you believe they’re being sucked into a giant trap which will snap shut in a giant encirclement battle along the lines of Stalingrad. Unlikely given the Iraqi Army propensity for running away and the Kurdish desire to stay in Kurdistan.

    Wars are never decided by the actions of one party. There are always mistakes on both sides. Saying Ramadi fell because of GOI errors doesn’t mean ISIS isn’t succeeding. More mistakes by the GOI and outrages by Shia militia’s are coming. You can bet on that.

    Even if the GOI retakes all of Sunni Arab Iraq what does it have? Rubble and an insurgency fueled by the inevitable atrocities carried out by the Shia militias.

    • “an insurgency fueled by the inevitable atrocities carried out by the Shia militias.”

      Seriously? I can’t wait for you to detail those alleged “inevitable atrocities”, or how you are able to turn the Shia victims of years long crimes and slaughtering by Sunni terrorists/militants into culprits if not an alibi for the latter mess: what a hypocritical garbage, the one recurrently voiced by the sponsors and supporters of Sunni extremism and terrorism -Saudi Arabia, etc- claiming from Yemen to Iraq that they fear “sectarian tensions” when their assets’ victims dare to defend themselves and while they initiated or fueled them in the first place…

      • Give it up. Stop the hysterics.

        Much of the ISIS gain in Iraq is due to Sunnis having enough of the Shia run central gov’t. In the recent attack on Tikrit the Iraqi government had to withdraw Shia militias becasue they were committing atrocities. UCLA posted satellite images online of Sunni areas of Baghdad that were ethnically cleansed by Shia militias in the 2005-08 period. During that time about 100 people per night were kidnapped and murdered often after torture by JAM and the Badr Brigades.- who made up most of the Iraqi Police. The same type of crimes continues today.

        ISIS is awful but the Shia militias are no better.

        • Michael Shannon makes a good point….

          Who do you root for when no one is the good guy?

  4. Maybe the Iraqi Government should ship some of the Kurds down to help them fight…..at least they know that winning a battle requires you to face the enemy, and not simply show them your back as you try to get away as quickly as possible.

    what an embarrassment for the Iraqi army.

    • The sole aim of Kurdish fighters is to establish a Kurdish state where they live, in Iraq and Turkey. If they don’t want to go, it may be somewhat difficult to “ship some of the Kurds down”. They have no interest in fighting for the state of Iraq, or anyone else for that matter.

Sign in to comment.