The real question regarding General Martin Dempsey’s unfortunate remark about the battle in Ramadi on Thursday (16 April) isn’t why he said such a politically stupid thing. It’s why he said such a strategically stupid thing.
The focus has been on his comment as a political misstep, of course, since it gave understandable offense to the mother of a Navy SEAL killed in Ramadi in 2006. Debbie Lee took exception to Dempsey’s statement that Ramadi was “not symbolic in any way.”
He was making this point as part of a case that defending Ramadi in 2015 isn’t necessary to U.S. objectives in Iraq:
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said defending Ramadi was secondary to protecting the Beiji oil refinery from Islamic State militants during his remarks to reporters.
But hold it right there. Suddenly, our strategy in Iraq is about the oil refineries? When did that happen? And why is that theme being used as an excuse for the U.S. to fade in the fight for Ramadi?
At no time since March 2003 has the U.S. ever had the primary or overriding objective of protecting the oil and gas infrastructure. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a consideration, in how we planned or designed military activities. But it does mean that the main justification for doing something (or not doing something) has never focused on the oil and gas infrastructure.
Even in the months since August 2014, when there has been no discernible strategy for the use of American force in Iraq, the putative purposes of our military activities have never centered on protecting the oil infrastructure. The media are more apt to notice the proximity of oil fields or refineries to a battle area than the Pentagon’s spokesmen are to talk about it.
Our military contribution, mainly in the form of air strikes (and intelligence), has focused instead on two other concerns: trying to protect the population (e.g., near Mosul in the north), and helping the forces fighting Islamic State in their local battles.
In Ramadi, last week, we had a two-fer: a terrified, fleeing population, under attack by Islamic State; and Iraqi forces battling ISIS in and around the city.
All things being equal, we might well think the Obama administration would be as anxious to protect the population as it was in the north, and as anxious to support the friendly forces engaged with ISIS as it was in Tikrit, or in Kobani, Syria.
But not only did General Dempsey come out and say that Ramadi is a secondary concern – we also pulled the aircraft carrier out of the Persian Gulf a few days later, effectively removing the biggest concentration of strike-fighters we have in the region to support a ground fight in Ramadi with. The departure of the carrier doesn’t mean no one can conduct air strikes in Ramadi. Other coalition aircraft are still there (e.g., Jordan’s, Qatar’s), along with U.S. Air Force strike-fighters in Qatar. But it does mean that the scope of what can be accomplished with air power is significantly less.
Basically, it means the U.S., at least for the time being, has no intention of being part of a major push in Anbar Province.
Why sideline ourselves here?
The Dempsey comment about the oil refinery at Baiji was out of left field and basically a throw-away, with no pattern of U.S. focus or interest behind it. Even if we have had a sudden rush of anxiety about oil refineries, we moved the carrier out of the Gulf anyway. The reality appears to be that we consider everything in Anbar secondary, including the oil refinery at Baiji.
Yet that doesn’t make sense, if there is any priority at all to the proclaimed U.S. interest in “degrading and defeating” Islamic State.
Anbar – especially what I call the Euphrates Corridor, with its geographically vital connection to Raqqa, Syria – is Islamic State’s center of gravity. ISIS has been consolidating its hold on the Euphrates Corridor since 2013, and has dominated almost all of it for the last six months. Ramadi is the big prize ISIS has needed to take.
Fighting Islamic State’s forces elsewhere – Tikrit, Mosul, Kobani – would, in any competently designed strategy, be a secondary or supporting effort. The key to disrupting ISIS (see footnote at link) is to deny the guerrilla-terrorist force its center of gravity: deny it the stronghold, deny it free use of the “interior line of communication” from Raqqa to the outskirts of Baghdad.
Gaining control of Ramadi would be a major victory for ISIS, consolidating its hold on its center of gravity and allowing it to develop offensive momentum just outside Baghdad. (ISIS could also, of course, hold the Euphrates River itself hostage, if it could control the entire corridor.) Yet the Obama administration appears to have clearly disclaimed interest in the outcome, just at this critical moment.
Before moving on, it bears noting again that the U.S. has both the capabilities and the experience to attack Islamic State effectively in its stronghold. The American force model could roll up Islamic State relatively quickly, if it were brought to bear at an adequate force level and with the right operational scheme and objectives.
But no other force in the region has that capability. Other armies will fight ISIS, but they can’t fight as well or as effectively as U.S. forces could. They are not the answer to achieving a decisive victory over Islamic State. They just can’t do it.
I make this point because it will be tempting, in the days ahead, to look at tactical gains by Iraqi, Kurdish, or Iranian forces as evidence that the tide is turning, or that a sustainable recapture of territory is at hand. As long as Islamic State can regroup in its center-of-gravity stronghold, however, the bottom line is that the fight will continue. Iraq and Syria will continue to be a war zone.
Don’t look for some other regional actor that can do what America might have done in this situation. There isn’t one.
What the door is being opened to
Whatever the U.S. may be doing, by moving our carrier to where it has no obvious role, off Yemen, the fight in Ramadi continues, and there will be a near-term outcome.
One way to look at the problem is to see who is in the fight in Ramadi. And the most important thing, by far, is that Iran is in the fight. The Basiji militias – the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias – are fighting there, as they have for Tikrit, along with the Iraqi Hezbollah “Brigades” (see video) and the elite Iraqi “Golden Division,” the special-forces contingent that once acted as Saddam’s special guard, but was reorganized under Nouri al-Maliki and is now Shia-dominated and Iran-permeated.
Tikrit, meanwhile – yesterday’s battle front – is north of Baghdad, and the Iranian geographic link to it lies east of Baghdad, through Diyala Province, the scene of much ancient history for Persia and her neighbors.
Ramadi is west of Baghdad. Ramadi lies along the route from Baghdad to Damascus – and from Baghdad to Beirut, Amman, and Jerusalem.
Ramadi isn’t just some disembodied real estate with an oil refinery nearby. The internal collapse of Iraq, and the rise of ISIS, have made Ramadi a gateway that can swing in two directions. A key geostrategic reality created by the ISIS phenomenon is that to defeat ISIS, you must roll ISIS up from Ramadi to Raqqa. You need to conquer the Euphrates Corridor and drive ISIS out of it.
Of course Iran envisions doing that, and has for some time. And whoever does it will control Anbar Province – and hence the borders with Jordan and Syria, and much of the border with Saudi Arabia.
The rise of Islamic State, and the pull-out of American power, have created a reason for Iran to be invited in to wage this fight. ISIS has packaged the fight geostrategically in a certain way – most conveniently for Iran – and the absence of U.S. power is a pretext for Iran to spearhead the fight.
Collateral shifts in the Iranian posture
The emergence of Iran west of Baghdad is of course alarming to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, at the very least. (Turkey won’t be amused either.) So it is fascinating as all get-out to see that the architect of Iran’s military campaigns in Syria and Iraq – Qods force commander Qassem Soleimani – has had a sudden attack of modesty and self-deprecation, just in the last few weeks. It looks like his fame is being suppressed, and his role downplayed, just as the battle for Ramadi heats up.
Selfies of Soleimani have been all over social media for months, depicting him with local troops in eastern and northern Iraq. But we are to see much less of Soleimani – if we see anything at all – in Ramadi.
At the same time, the Iraqis have set up a peculiar public narrative. Their top political leaders now describe themselves as being incensed that Iranian forces, including Soleimani, have had such a high profile in the fight against Islamic State. This started at the same time the coyness about Soleimani began (the end of March). And it’s strange: the officials in question – Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Deputy Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – are both very friendly toward Iran, and have in fact welcomed and depended on Iranian “support.”
There’s no love lost between the two Iraqis, for that matter; for them to come out saying the exact same thing looks more like a coordinated propaganda narrative than anything spontaneous and heartfelt. It’s also a narrative from out of left field. Frankly, it looks like a misinformation feint.
(The image below, incidentally, posted to Twitter on 13 April, shows Soleimani keeping a low profile with Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Iraqi Badr Corps of the Basiji militias.)
Soleimani himself does not appear to be in hot water back in Tehran (or in Qom, where the clerical council holds forth). In late March, just as the Iraqi narrative was launched, BBC Arabic reported that Soleimani had left Iraq to head to Yemen and coordinate the Houthi fight there. But that report was rather quickly deleted – not corrected, simply deleted – and the Iranian media were at pains to emphasize afterward that Soleimani had gone to Tehran, where he was photographed attending a religious ceremony with Ayatollah Khamenei.
Nevertheless, there’s a push on to downplay Soleimani, which began just before the current battle of Ramadi ramped up. Clearly, Iran isn’t anxious to have his whereabouts widely reported. That would be, at least in part, because of the alarms a higher profile would sound across the region, if Soleimani were widely and openly reported to be west of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, in Syria, regional media reported last week that Iranian forces in Syria had been withdrawing from most of their positions around the country, and were consolidating positions in the immediate vicinity of Damascus. At the same time, a piece in Foreign Policy pointed out that ISIS had been making gains against Iranian and regime forces in western Syria, agreeing with the NOW Lebanon report that the Iranian forces had taken significant losses. (Daily Beast took up that refrain yesterday, producing the graphic below to show not only that ISIS had made gains, but that the Pentagon had ignored them in its most recent briefing.)
What Iran is choosing to do, then, is pull back and hold in Syria, and put her resources into the push in Iraq – largely in Ramadi, at the moment – and the push in Yemen.
So, again, why is the U.S. sidelining itself in Anbar?
In this context, minimizing the U.S. contribution in Anbar amounts to getting out of Iran’s way. It’s giving Iran a free hand in the most strategically important aspect of the fight with Islamic State: the battle for the Euphrates Corridor.
Next, recognize that the fight with Islamic State is the fight for Iraq and Syria.
And finally, add in the reporting from early February, sourced to European diplomats familiar with the Iran nuclear negotiations, that the U.S. was prepared to rely on Iran to “maintain regional stability” in Iraq and Syria. John Kerry was reported to be negotiating with Iran on that basis. Another way this was widely put at the time was “giving Iran a free hand” in Iraq and Syria.
Pulling the carrier out of the Iraq fight may be an incremental move. But it’s still a definitive one.
If the Iranians weren’t embedded in the fight for Ramadi, west of Baghdad and holding the key to the Euphrates Corridor, it wouldn’t look quite so much like the U.S. was handing Iraq and Syria over to Iran.
The game shifts
But the Iranians are embedded in the fight for Ramadi. Ramadi’s location, and the tacit U.S. fade – even if it’s not a complete withdrawal – make this a watershed moment in the fight for Iraq: a point from which there is no turning back, and after which the whole dynamic will be different. Because of what lies west of Ramadi, it’s a turning point for the region as well. It has been many centuries since Iran (or Persia) could operate military force west of Baghdad in the way she may soon be able to.
For Iran, Ramadi is actually a better place to be than Baghdad: it’s a fulcrum on which to gain leverage in both directions – Baghdad and points west – and puts Iran at the geographic epicenter of the fight for Iraq and Syria much faster than she would have gotten there, if she’d tried to go through Baghdad.
I observed last year that sitting outside Baghdad holding the key to the city would be a higher payoff position for ISIS than getting into Baghdad, and then having to defend it. Much the same is true for Iran. It’s better to have her troops in Diyala Province, east of Baghdad; in Tikrit, north of Baghdad; and embedded in the fight westward along the Euphrates. That way, the Iraqi central government has to worry about protecting Baghdad proper, but Iran has Baghdad flanked on three sides.
Iran can’t make anything happen fast. No one but America (and occasionally Israel) can win a ground war in the Middle East fast. Iran’s new probe into such a sensitive area will inevitably provoke the Saudis and Jordanians to do more gearing up, bristling, and running around in circles. Turkey will keep trying to find the magic proxy to back in Syria. There’s a lot of caterwauling and perplexed waiting ahead for all of us.
But think about this. One year ago, if I’d said Iran would be west of Baghdad, with a whole lot of nothing between her position and the Golan Heights or Jerusalem, just about everyone would have pooh-poohed that idea. No way could anything that destabilizing happen in such a short time.
But it has.
For more on the “Race to Jerusalem,” start here.