There is no doubt that from a strategic perspective, the retaking of Ramadi—the capital of Sunni-dominated Anbar province in Iraq—amounts to the best news for anti-ISIS forces for a very long time. The shocking, unexpected loss of the city in May of last year became a totemic symbol of the increasing political and military haplessness of the beleaguered premiership of Haider al-Abadi. As such its re-capture—after a relatively brief fight from October-December 2014—is both a needed military and propaganda boon.
To be fair, a lot went right during the recently concluded campaign. The American-led anti-ISIS coalition has ramped up its bombing efforts overall, flying more than 3000 sorties in November 2015, the highest monthly total yet. American bombers provided far more effective ground support for their Iraq allies on the ground in the Ramadi campaign than has been true up until now, a necessary strategic factor for the war ahead, particularly if vital Mosul is to be re-taken.
Another good sign is that the Iraqi army, local police, and some local Sunni tribal fighters successfully coordinated their movements in taking the fight to ISIS on the ground. Partly due to American pressure, the Abadi government wisely omitted Shia-dominated militias from participating in the fighting, as their presence was likely to have stoked unease amongst the majority Sunni population of Anbar, the last thing the government in Baghdad needed.
But in a very real sense this unique series of fortuitous strategic events merely underlines how hard the war ahead is likely to be. For the success in Ramadi is largely not repeatable, based as it is on the military success of the government in Baghdad, skilfully allied with local Sunni forces from Anbar province itself. To re-take Iraq’s second city, Mosul, in the north—absolutely vital for puncturing ISIS’s myth of invincibility and ejecting them from the country—both Shia and Kurdish militias will also have to be part of the mix, a disparate sectarian set of boots on the ground who will need to be involved in liberating the largely Sunni city.
This tactical reality flies in the face of the overall strategic fact of life that if ISIS is to be defeated, the West needs Sunni Arab allies on the ground in both Iraq and Syria, far more than any other force. Only a Sunni counter-narrative, combined with them taking the lead in ejecting ISIS from its bastions of support, is likely to lead to a lasting political peace in both Iraq and Syria.
In other words, while taking Ramadi is unvarnished good news, now the hard part begins: Baghdad’s political struggle to convince its minority Sunni population that this time it is intent on taking their needs and views seriously. Political success, and not just military victory, is the vital elixir needed to inoculate the Middle East from the ISIS disease.
On this score, efforts by the well-meaning Abadi government have been underwhelming up until now. A basic litmus test of Baghdad’s seriousness—the creation of an Iraqi National Guard based around anti-ISIS Sunni tribal militias in Anbar—has come to nothing. The Obama administration, having learned the bitter lessons of the know-nothing Bush White House, has rightly and wisely pressed the Prime Minister to make the guard a reality, hoping to use Anbar Sunni leaders as the key political force for ejecting ISIS from Anbar permanently, just as the earlier ‘Awakening’ movement put paid to ISIS’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
But despite this all making eminent sense in policy terms, Shia power brokers (including Abadi’s own Dawa party, still led by the disastrous former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki) close to the Iranian government have stifled any efforts reflecting the reality that Iraq is a multi-sectarian country. Without such a radical political change, Iraq’s days as a country are bound to be numbered, and ISIS will merely rise again, much as AQI did following on from the previous Maliki government’s programme of Shia chauvinism.
There is only one man with significant political heft to effect such a political revolution: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most respected Shia clerics in the world. Only Sistani—who by great luck is a believer in both Iraqi nationalism as well as the need for a secular state—can force the necessary concessions from the Shia majority, turning Iraq into a far more de-centralised state, in line with the ethno-religious realities on the ground. Failing this, no number of Ramadi-style victories can change the basic political fact that Iraq has become ungovernable.
Since the end of December 2015, the military news in Iraq has been on the whole very good: as President Obama recently pointed out ISIS controls fully 40% less territory now than it did at its high-water mark. That is a good first step. But the hard part, getting the politics right, lies just ahead.
(for the blurb update, we do this yearly): …The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.
By Dr. John C. Hulsman, Al Arabiya online, January 5, 2015.