After Ramadi, obstacles remain in war against ISIS
Western defence ministers met in Paris in January to coordinate plans to “accelerate and intensify” the military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
It was the latest signal of an emerging strategy, spearheaded by the United States and its closest allies, to wage a conventional territorial war against the jihadist movement with the ultimate aim of ousting it from its Iraqi and Syrian “capitals” of Mosul and Raqqa.
As with all such strategic plans, it might turn out to look better on paper than it does on the ground. It envisages relying on large numbers of local ground forces, backed by coalition air strikes, to split up ISIS territory by disrupting supply lines and degrading its resources before ultimately going in for the kill.
The plan’s acknowledged weakness is that it relies on local allies with a range of conflicting agendas that do not fit neatly into a strategy dictated by the West. In addition, Iran and Russia, both heavily committed in the region, are capable of acting as spoilers rather than partners in the enterprise.
In Iraq, the plan would involve hundreds of additional US and allied military trainers preparing thousands more Iraqi troops to eventually undertake the conquest of Mosul. However, an offensive to retake the city could be more than a year away despite headway made by anti-ISIS forces elsewhere in Iraq in 2015.
Even after Ramadi was retaken in December 2015, after a six-month ISIS occupation, mopping-up operations in and around the town continue. “It’s slow and it’s painstaking,” US Army Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the US-led coalition, said on January 20th in Baghdad.
He gave no timetable for advancing beyond Ramadi. “It will take as long as it takes,” he said.
At Ramadi, Iraqi forces had been slowed by thousands of booby traps, improvised explosive devices, buried explosives and houses rigged to explode.
Since Ramadi, Iraqi forces, supported by coalition air strikes and Sunni tribal fighters, repelled an ISIS assault further north at Barwana. It was the kind of localised engagement, involving a core of local elite forces with coalition support, that the Americans say will gradually wear ISIS down.
The current focus is on Falluja, a traditional hard-line Sunni stronghold between Ramadi and Baghdad. Iraqi security forces clashed with ISIS near Falluja in mid-January but, by the end of the month, there was no sign that an assault to retake the city would come soon.
Even if Falluja is retaken, the Pentagon estimates the Iraqi government will need many more trained troops before it can press on to Mosul. Warren estimated that eight brigades — around 25,000 soldiers — would be needed to take the ISIS stronghold.
The Americans want two Kurdish brigades brought together for further training to participate in an eventual operation in Mosul. At the moment, the government only has three trained brigades; some 10,000 men were involved in the Ramadi operation.
In deference to Iraqi sensibilities, Warren conceded that there was no final plan for the recapture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and ISIS’s most important conquest in Iraq. “This is going to be an Iraqi plan,” he said. “Obviously, we’ll advise them on that plan, but it’s going to be their plan. They’re going to fight it in the Iraqi way.”
It was an indication that the challenges to the United States’ preferred strategy for pushing on towards Mosul were as much political as military. The White House and the Pentagon are prepared to authorise additional American trainers to join the almost 4,000 US personnel in Iraq and are encouraging their coalition allies to make similar commitments.
In Baghdad, however, Iranian-aligned militia groups within Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Shia-dominated government are expected to resist an expansion of Western involvement in the anti- ISIS campaign.
The government has requested coalition air strikes, which have been essential to the anti-ISIS fightback.
Abadi has said he has no need of foreign “boots on the ground” in the war and, in the final weeks of the Ramadi campaign, he failed to take up an offer of US Apache helicopter gunships to support the operation.
As US Army Lieutenant-General Sean MacFarland, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, ruefully remarked: “It’s kind of hard to inflict support on somebody, you know?”
In a briefing to journalists in Baghdad in mid-December, he added: “We’re looking at the things that Iraqis need to succeed. And this has to be an Iraqi victory at the end of the day but they need a little bit of help.”