If you listen to the mainstream media, you probably think mainly that a superior force of Iraqi national troops abandoned the city of Ramadi to Islamic State 10 days ago – by implication, doing so in spite of U.S. support to the Iraqis and the battle.
As Americans were wondering “What happened?” over the past week, words uttered by Ashton Carter, the U.S. secretary of defense, came to seem like the answer. His signature comment was to the effect that the Iraqis were unwilling to fight.
As a cherry on top, I heard (Tuesday evening) a news anchor on the local ABC affiliate chirp out the theory that Carter’s harsh assessment “may have prompted” the Iraqi government to mount its impending operation to retake Ramadi. The implication is that the Iraqis had to be goaded into it. Local affiliates don’t make up foreign-affairs news narratives on their own; this was undoubtedly fed to them by the staff at ABC headquarters.
Unfortunately, there is no accurate adjective for this themery other than some variant of stupid.
That’s especially the case when the means to develop a better picture of what’s going on is readily available.
The building blocks of that better picture are three simple ones: the nature of U.S. support to the Ramadi fight; Iraq’s choice of who would fight in Ramadi, versus the demography of Anbar Province; and the geography of Islamic State’s stronghold there.
U.S. support in Ramadi: Limited, tentative, and reactive
If you hazily imagine that there was a significant air campaign in Ramadi by U.S. and other coalition air assets, while the city’s fate hung in the balance, you’re probably not alone. You may imagine that there was a sustained focus on Ramadi as a tactical epicenter during this period, if for no other reason than that you kept hearing about Ramadi in April and May. You may envision the kind of strikes the public grew accustomed to during the years when U.S. troops were in combat in Iraq: strikes that responded to tactical requests from the ground, and directly supported the troops in contact.
But you’d be wrong on all counts. That’s not what’s going on, as a rule, anywhere in Iraq, and it wasn’t the case in Ramadi during the critical period from mid-March to the city’s fall to ISIS 17-19 May.
Based on U.S. Central Command’s daily updates for the period 15 March to 19 May, a rough count of all the coalition air strikes in Anbar Province throughout that time was 237. The target areas most often struck were, in order, Fallujah, Ramadi, Al Asad (near the air base where a contingent of U.S. forces is training Iraqis), Hit, and the more remote areas of Al Qaim, Haditha, Rawah, and Ar Rutbah. About 82 of the strikes were on targets in the vicinity of Ramadi.
But there were only a dozen days out of this two-month period when there were more than 2 total strikes in a day on Ramadi-area targets. And on most of those higher-volume days, there were fewer than 5 strikes in the Ramadi area. On only four days – 18 March, 20 April, and 17 and 18 May – did CENTCOM report having conducted 5 or more strikes around Ramadi in the previous 24 hours.
That’s not a focused level of support to the ongoing fight for a city. Which, in turn, isn’t to say the strikes were unimportant. But it is to say that they represented part of an overall posture of general, and limited, interdiction against ISIS across the whole of Anbar Province, rather than a concentration on the tactical needs of the fight in Ramadi. It would be a misleading stretch to suggest that coalition air assets were really “in” that fight.
In fact, the daily list of mostly generic targets struck makes that clear. The timing of the strikes in Ramadi does too: ramped-up strikes have typically come only after things have already gotten bad (e.g., the heavy strike days of 17 and 18 May, as Ramadi was in the process of falling) – rather than being used to shape a deliberate battle plan in advance.
But we don’t need to base this assessment solely on an analysis of the timing or the target set serviced. The Washington Times this week quotes special forces operators as “lamenting” that they’ve been unable to work directly with Iraqi forces in combat – in part because if they could, they could make air support more effective and tactically significant.
That our air campaign has not been more effective or tactically significant has been remarked on by military analysts for the media, and is acknowledged even in reporting by the Obama-friendly New York Times:
Iraqi commanders and some American officers say that exercising such prudence with airstrikes is a major reason the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh, has been able to seize vast territory in recent months in Iraq and Syria. That caution — coupled with President Obama’s reluctance to commit significant American firepower to a war the White House declared over in 2011, when the last United States combat troops withdrew from Iraq — has led to persistent complaints from Iraqi officials that the United States has been too cautious in its air campaign.
Iraqi officials say the limited American airstrikes have allowed columns of Islamic State fighters essentially free movement on the battlefield.
“The international alliance is not providing enough support compared with ISIS’ capabilities on the ground in Anbar,” said Maj. Muhammed al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi officer in Anbar Province, which contains Ramadi. “The U.S. airstrikes in Anbar didn’t enable our security forces to resist and confront the ISIS attacks,” he added. “We lost large territories in Anbar because of the inefficiency of the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.”
Perhaps a better way of saying this last would be that Iraqi forces’ effectiveness would be greater if they could count on the kind of tactical air support the U.S. knows well how to provide, but isn’t providing in this campaign.
However we say it, the point remains: Iraqi forces are not getting the level of air support to their tactical fight that Americans back home may imagine. They’re having to fight for the most part without such support.
That has a lot to do with why their numbers in Ramadi didn’t translate into preparedness, tactical awareness, cohesion, or effectiveness in battle. It’s not just that they didn’t have the support; it’s that they couldn’t plan to fight the battle with such support as part of their tool bag. Going into it, they lacked assets that could have shaped their expectations about what they’d be able to know, be aware of, “see,” make decisions about, and count on.
In such conditions of limited battle space vision and reach, ISIS wouldn’t even have to surprise the Iraqis all that much, to blow their fragile command-and-control and battle plan to smithereens.
The demography of Anbar
The other thing the Iraqi forces lacked in Ramadi was the Shia militias and their Iranian “advisors” – including, of course, Qassem Soleimani, notorious head of the Iranian Qods Force. These guys are nowhere near 10 feet tall, but in Diyala Province and the battle for Tikrit, they were more effective against ISIS than the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). They’re gaining a rep as the forces that win, in the fight against Islamic State.
The reason why the Shia militias had not been deployed in numbers to Ramadi (although the Iraqi Hezbollah brigade did deploy several weeks ago) is ostensibly some version of the concern summarized in this BBC report. Anbar Province is the “Sunni base” of Iraq, and the provincial leaders haven’t been comfortable with the idea of an influx of armed Shias – not even for the purpose of driving out ISIS.
I don’t doubt the reality of that concern, or the likelihood that it would carry weight, as a political consideration, with the national coalition government in Baghdad. But I’m not convinced it’s the only consideration that’s been at work. The reason for this skepticism comes from what we see when we look at a map (below), and when we observe what has happened with the fall of Ramadi.
The geography of Anbar
Crudely put, letting Ramadi fall has driven at least 55,000 people, almost all of them Sunnis, out of Ramadi. More will assuredly leave in the coming days. It has also broken the back of Anbar’s provincial arrangements for political order – police, security, public trust – which are under the control of Sunni officials. The nominal control hasn’t changed, but the bottom has dropped out of what that means about an actual level of political and territorial control.
Whether we suppose this was allowed to happen with deliberate intent or not, it is what’s happened. Bringing the Shia forces in now, rather than a month or six weeks ago, means retaking a city and a province that are prostrate, in chaos, with their political center of gravity fully disrupted.
So the Shia forces’ campaign is now being prepared – with the leadership of Qassem Soleimani and his long-time associates. And the Anbar Sunnis have no base at this point from which to effectively oppose having some level of Iran-backed Shia “partnership” imposed on them.
I suspect there will be a polite veil of “cooperation” laid over all this (and plenty of euphemistic bribery behind the scenes). The Abadi government in Baghdad, and the Iranian strategic planners, want to achieve as much as they can without provoking opposition unnecessarily. And things won’t necessarily all go the Iranians’ way. ISIS has a vote, as well as the Anbar Sunnis.
But make no mistake. Sending the Iran-backed Shias to the rescue in Anbar would, if they accomplish their mission, open up a clear path into the heart of the Middle East – the Levant, Al-Sham, ancient Canaan; whatever we want to call it – that Persian rulers have not had for some 2,000 years.
I wrote about this geographic reality a few weeks ago, in another piece in which Ramadi was a major topic. Back in 2011, a “documentary” was produced in Iran under the auspices of the clerical council in Qom, which outlined an apocalyptic vision of the conquest of Jerusalem and the return of the Mahdi. At the time, the narrators of the documentary suggested that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might be the great military commander who paved the way for the Mahdi by driving into Jerusalem.
We in the West naturally see this idea as fantastic, and in 2011, an empirical perspective would have scoffed at the wild idea that a path for Iranian military conquest would open up between the Zagros Mountains and Jerusalem.
But a mere four years later, that very path is about to open, if the Shia militias and their Iranian backers are able to beat Islamic State back in Anbar. We would be foolish to dismiss as unimportant the motivation of eschatology for the radical mullahs, as they watch political geography seeming to align with their prophetic beliefs. In these rarefied times, Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi isn’t the only “Apocalypse Boy” in town.
If Anbar becomes an Iran-friendly province, no significant military obstacles lurk between Baghdad and the Jordan River. In fact, an apocalyptic visionary in Qom could well imagine letting ISIS neutralize Jordan, the same way ISIS could be said to be neutralizing Anbar, as a nice convenience for Iran.
Ramadi is key to controlling the lines of communication in Anbar Province, running to both Syria – along the “Euphrates Corridor” that forms ISIS’s center of gravity – and Jerusalem. The question of who will dominate Anbar could not be of more importance for anyone in the region, from Turkey to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Whether through intent or coincidence – pick your preferred perspective – Iran is now poised to try to achieve dominance over Anbar Province, by starting with a battle for Ramadi that most of the world, in a marvelous access of political convenience, sees as necessary and desirable. In fact, the feckless United States is likely to help Iran retake Ramadi, by providing a focused surge of the more useful air support we supplied in late March to the battle for Tikrit.
The Saudis and other Sunni states won’t just sit still for this; the jostling and arming up will continue to escalate. The fate of Syria will shortly come to matter for new reasons, which will include how Syria’s disposition affects the Iranian thrust into Anbar. Turkey will face the dilemma of if, how, and when to throw off the constraints of her NATO-era status quo posture, and begin pursuing a more active – probably armed – role.
Of all the parties, the Iranians are the least likely to lose their strategic focus, as long as their regime remains stable. Psycho-apocalypticism will do that for you.
And none of it could have been set up without the abrupt withdrawal of American power. In 2008, of course, we elected Barack Obama.