In late 2004, right after the presidential election in the United States, the town of Fallujah was taken by U.S. Marines and soldiers from al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It was hailed as a major victory for the Marines, in particular, who had engaged in their heaviest urban combat since the Battle of Hue in 1968. Yet in the greater scheme of things, the Second Battle of Fallujah (there had been an earlier battle in April 2004 which had ended when Marines had been ordered to stop their assault) was inconsequential.
AQI continued to control Anbar Province, and would continue to do so until the dawn of the Anbar Awakening in 2006. This support from Anbar’s tribes made the battle of Ramadi in 2006-2007 far more consequential. Once again, soldiers and Marines managed to wrest a town from AQI but, this time, the gains were enduring because the U.S. forces and their Iraqi counterparts now had the support of the local population, something they had lacked during the battle of Fallujah. This is a lesson that the current U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, knows well; as a colonel, he led the U.S. side in the earlier battle of Ramadi.
In trying to assess the outcome of the latest battle of Ramadi, which is now said to have ended with Iraqi security forces backed by U.S. airpower routing ISIS (AQI’s successor) out of the provincial capital, it is necessary to figure out whether this victory will resemble Fallujah in 2004 or Ramadi in 2006. Put another way: Will this victory be fleeting or enduring?
It is too soon to know for sure, of course, but most signs point to this victory being no more enduring than the fall of Fallujah in 2004. Insofar as it is possible to judge, the “liberating” forces in Ramadi — the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Security Forces — have as little support today as U.S. Marines had in Anbar Province in 2004.
To be sure, the Baghdad government and military and its backers in the U.S. government and military have tried to paint the victory in the most non-sectarian terms possible. They claim that this was entirely a victory for the professional Iraqi army and that no Shiite militiamen were present in this battle, in sharp contrast to earlier clashes at Tikrit and Beiji, where the militias were the dominant element. The fact that pictures have emerged from the battle showing Iraqi fighters with militia patches on their uniforms has tended to undermine these claims. Even more significant is the fact that most of the Iraqi army, since the post-2011 purge of Sunni officers, has become virtually indistinguishable from the Shiite militias.
Sure, the Iraqi army, with U.S. air support, can take Ramadi. But can the Iraqi Army hold it without becoming an unwelcome army of occupation — as the Marines were in 2004 or as the Israeli Army has been in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip?
For this victory to be enduring, the government in Baghdad would have to reach out to Sunnis, to offer them a share of power — and of oil revenues. So far, alas, there is scant sign of that occurring. While a few Sunni sheikhs have rallied to the government’s side, most have not. The Iranian-dominated regime in Baghdad shows little sign of making the kind of compromises to win Sunni support that the Maliki government made in 2007-2008 under heavy American pressure.
Unless and until Baghdad addresses Sunni concerns — which would include, inter alia, allowing Sunni officers unfairly purged from the Iraqi army to resume their former positions – it is doubtful that the government will be able not only to hold Ramadi but also to expeditiously retake the rest of Anbar Province (including Fallujah) and Nineveh Province (including the much larger city of Mosul) from ISIS.
And of course, even as ISIS loses some territory in Iraq, it has expanded its holdings in Syria. The fact that the “caliphate” stretches across the Iraq-Syrian border allows its fighters an easy means of escape to the ISIS heartland around Raqqa, where they can regroup and fight again another day.
While President Obama stresses the fact that ISIS has lost about 40 percent of its Iraqi territory, it has lost only about 14 percent of its total territory since January 2014. To truly defeat ISIS, the U.S. will have to do a better job of mobilizing Sunnis in both Syria and Iraq to battle these extremists. In Syria, so far, the prospects of creating such a force are even poorer than they are in Iraq.
While Iraqi forces and their American partners are to be congratulated for the victory in Ramadi, then, it should not be taken as proof that President Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy is working or that the Cruz/Trump “carpet bombing” strategy would work any better. The latest battle of Ramadi shows the importance of having effective ground forces that can take advantage of American airpower. Unfortunately, we are still a long way from having the forces necessary to defeat ISIS in both Iraq and Syria — to say nothing of its farther flung outposts from Libya to Afghanistan.