In Iraq, the US will have to bite the bullet yet again
BEIRUT - On May 15th, the day that jihadist fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS) stormed into the strategically important city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, the US Department of Defense published a report that declared ISIS “is on the defensive throughout Iraq and Syria” and that the US-Iraqi strategy “to defeat and dismantle” the group is “on track”.
The timing of that report by US Marines Brigadier-General Thomas D. Weidley was abysmal and portrayed an administration seeming totally divorced from reality as ISIS notched another victory in its year-old blitzkrieg campaign in Iraq. But indeed what the Long War Journal termed Weidley’s “Pollyannaish view” reflects the US administration’s stubborn insistence that the war is winnable and that ISIS will be crushed and its self-proclaimed caliphate smashed.
The loss of Ramadi is a disaster for the Baghdad government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose army has, time and again, failed to stand its ground against inferior numbers of ISIS fighters and simply run away, as it did at Ramadi and so catastrophically at Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014 at the start of ISIS’s campaign from its base in neighbouring Syria.
Ramadi is only 115 kilometres from Baghdad — an hour’s drive — and the mid-May conquest heightens concerns that the jihadist strategy is to encircle the capital and systematically strangle it into submission. This appears to be an updated version of the so-called Baghdad Belts concept defined by ISIS more than a year ago in which the countryside around the city of 1.1 million was to be taken over.
“Baghdad is certainly in danger,” Iraqi President Fuad Masum told The Arab Weekly on May 20th.
There has been a steady and methodical increase in the number of suicide bombings in the capital in recent weeks, presumably to wear down morale and spread fear and panic. These are tried-and-tested ISIS tactics. ISIS’s thrust into Anbar since the summer of 2014 has all the hallmarks of the “Baghdad Belts” strategy, which was devised in 2006 by the group’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, to surround the capital before laying siege to it and infiltrating fighters and car bombs.
ISIS forces control a large chunk of territory west of Baghdad, including the town of Falluja, twice a major battlefield when the invading Americans fought al-Qaeda, and have pressed into Diyala province to the east.
Washington’s decision to limit active military support in the field to an open-ended campaign of air strikes by a US-led coalition, including Arab states, has clearly failed to cripple ISIS, despite, as of May 7th, 3,371 air strikes since the Mosul disaster.
The Pentagon has claimed more than 6,000 targets hit and 8,500 jihadists killed. There’s no independent confirmation of that toll, but whatever the true numbers, the campaign has clearly not inhibited ISIS’s military capabilities.
The air campaign, Operation Inherent Resolve, of which Weidley is chief of staff, has also produced one of the more bizarre aspects of the war in Iraq: US warplanes supporting Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias.
US President Barack Obama has balked at engaging in any military operations that are seen to aid the Iranians and bolster their perceived drive to establish total dominance over Iraq, a strategy that was ironically made possible by the Americans themselves when they conveniently toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and left Iraq open to being absorbed into Iran’s orbit.
That had another consequence that gives the Sunni kings and princes of the Gulf nightmares: opening up a land corridor through Iraq allowing the Arabs’ ancient foe, the Shia “Persians”, access to the western shore of the waterway.
But, like it or not, the Americans will now undoubtedly have to use their air power to back the Iranian-funded Shia militias. To fail to support a supposed ally like Abadi would redouble the alarm of the nervous Gulf monarchs who already fear the United States is leaving them in the lurch to face an expansionist Iran on their own.
In turn, the hapless Abadi has no choice but to rely on the Shia militias, known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) until — indeed, if — he can rebuild the combat capabilities of his military and security apparatus.
It was significant that when Ramadi fell, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, chief of al-Quds Force, the secretive expeditionary wing of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, immediately flew to Baghdad to take command of the PMU.
“It was Iran alone that successfully exploited Iraq’s deepening cleavages and was both willing and capable of playing the long game,” observed Muath al Wari, a Middle East analyst based in Washington. “And to the victor, naturally go to the spoils.