Analysis: Having taken Ramadi and Palmyra, ISIS is now unstoppable

ISIS forces in RamadiThe capture by Islamic State forces of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, on May 17, has given the organization a fortified urban base less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad. Its near-simultaneous takeover of the central Syrian city of Palmyra, points to the organization’s permanence and demonstrates its widening operational span, which now ranges from Western Libya to the Iranian border. Without an all-out war effort by outside forces, such as Iran, or the United States, it is difficult to see how the Islamic State could be stopped from permanently establishing itself as a major actor in the region, especially since no outside force appears willing to confront it directly.

On Tuesday, Iraqi government forces launched a major offensive to recapture Ramadi from the Islamic State —which is widely referred to in the West as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Such an effort, however, will be extremely difficult and costly, both in terms of lives and material requirements. Ramadi is a sizable city of over 900,000 people —although several thousand civilians have left— and presents an attacker with an urban-warfare setting that can be extremely arduous to operate in. Moreover, Ramadi is a solidly Sunni city, with strong ties to the pre-2003 Iraqi military establishment that date back to the early days of Saddam Hussein’s rule. Even if they do not necessarily see eye-to-eye with ISIS, Ramadi’s Sunni inhabitants are bound to fight doggedly against the Iraqi army, which is currently dominated by Shiites. Thus, if ISIS decides to hold on to Ramadi for reasons of strategy, or to defend its prestige, it will be very surprising if the Iraqi army manages to recapture it. Even if ISIS is driven out of the city, most likely with significant Iranian and American assistance, there is no guarantee that the local population will be Q Quotepacified. Iraqi government forces will almost certainly face a protracted armed campaign by a mixture of heavily armed groups in the city. Some of these groups are led by ISIS, some are inspired by al-Qaeda, while others are motivated by a broader anti-Shiite sentiment, which is currently the predominant political ideology in Anbar Province.

On May 20, ISIS forces also captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. The choice of target was neither spontaneous nor unexpected. Located right in the center of Syria, Palmyra forms one of two major land routes used by the government of Iran to transport military materiel to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hezbollah, which, like Iran, supports the Syrian government in Damascus, also acquires Iranian weapons through that route. The second main route, which passes through Deir el-Zor, and Raqqah, is already controlled by ISIS. Therefore, the Syrian regime, which depends largely on Iranian support for its survival, simply has to retake Palmyra if it wants to win its war against ISIS. The Islamists know this, however, and they will persistently resist any attempt by the Syrian troops to regain control of the city. As is typical in these situations, time will be crucial here. The more time ISIS has on its hands, the better it will be able to fortify and defend Palmyra. The Syrian military will most likely resort to bombing the city from the air, but this is not as easy as it used to be, because ISIS now has formidable antiaircraft capabilities. Moreover, at some point land forces will have to be used, and that is precisely where ISIS has the upper hand in Syria.

On Sunday, United States Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told CNN that, in his view, Ramadi fell to ISIS because “the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight”. Carter was right, except when he used the term “Iraqi forces”, he really meant Iraqi Shiites. There are currently almost no Sunnis left in the Iraqi Armed Forces. Most are unwilling to offer allegiance to a state that is dominated by Iran, which they see as not representing them, or indeed threatening their very existence. For that same reason, many Sunnis are now actively fighting in support of ISIS, or for Sunni tribes that Q Quoteare aligned to it. Iraqi Sunnis believe that if they lose the fight against the Iraqi military they will be extinct as a people, which explains why they are fighting with more zeal and determination than their Shiite compatriots.

Meanwhile the international anti-ISIS alliance is plagued by too many disagreements and political bad blood to be effective. The United States wants ISIS to lose, but no American president would consider sending large numbers of US troops back in the Middle East, after the fiasco in Iraq. Additionally, Washington does not want to be seen to cooperate with what is perhaps ISIS’ most formidable adversary, namely Iran. Saudi Arabia is nominally against ISIS, but it also knows that if ISIS loses in their war against the Iranians, the latter will simply dominate the region, and nobody in Riyadh wants this. Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey is ostensibly against ISIS, but it is also against the Kurds, who are currently being assisted by Iran to fight ISIS. It is therefore not assisting the war effort as much as it could.

This fragmentation within the anti-ISIS front will continue. It seems that everyone in the region is waiting for a new administration to emerge in Washington after the 2016 national elections, in the hope that the US will engage more directly in the war effort. However, unless ISIS directly attacks the US in a 9/11-type attack, it is difficult to see Washington taking a more active stance in this chaotic and unpredictable war. It is difficult to see this amidst the bloody suffering of the local people, but this war is in essence a multifaceted chess game, in which there are no genuine alliances. Every actor involved appears to be trying to promote their own narrowly defined national interests.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 May 2015 | Permalink:

11 Responses to Analysis: Having taken Ramadi and Palmyra, ISIS is now unstoppable

  1. Reblogged this on Asian Affairs and commented:
    A subtitle might be “We don’t have a dog in this fight”.

  2. Mike says:

    Is there a chance the regional powers, who do have a dog in the fight, will reach out to a world power other than the United States (Russia, China) for assistance? Thereby creating a circumstance that would force the US into becoming involved simply so another world power doesn’t increase it’s influence in the area?

  3. intelNews says:

    @Mike: Good question. I think the only regional power that could engage with ISIS directly, using an ethnically coherent force, is Iran. In fact, the only times ISIS has lost ground battles has been from Iranian-led forces. I also think the scenario you are describing is to some degree already happening, as the US is engaged in the war through Saudi Arabia, and Russia through Syria. However, the Iraq debacle has made all outside forces (US, Russia, EU) think twice before re-engaging in the Middle East. [JF]

  4. I don’t see where the US is engaged through Saudi Arabia in the war against ISIS. The Saudis take delight in bombing the daylights out of Iran’s proxies in Yemen. They apparently expect that the US alone will expend more lives and resources against ISIS. All that really matters in that part of the world is Sunni vs Shia vs Sunni.Thus my comment about the US not having a dog in the fight (to paraphrase a former Secretary of State). I trust that behind the scenes we are giving a wink to Iran to do whatever they can to defeat the menace.

  5. Tom McCabe says:

    Rather overstated. ISIS has had control of Fallujah for months, and it’s closer to Baghdad than Ramadi.

    The Iraqi Forces had managed to hold on in Ramadi for months. Maybe if the Iraqi Government had supplied them adequately they’d still have it.

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for the Shia militias to take Ramadi back. A few hundred ISIS held off 20,000 of them at Tikrit for weeks, inflicting heavy losses in the process. After they pulled back a few thousand Govt troops and Sunni tribal militia backed by US air strikes finished the job in a couple of days.

  6. Rob says:

    Not overstated. First it was Tirkit, then Falluja, now Ramadi. You could say the first time could have been luck, coincidence, etc. But IS are now conquering every suni city in Anbar and nobody seems able to stop them. We are seeing the final chapter in Ira’qs three-way division – shia, suni, Kurd, and IS basically is the suni side. This article is dead on.

  7. TFH says:

    “… it is difficult to see how the Islamic State could be stopped from permanently establishing itself as a major actor in the region. However, such an eventuality is extremely improbable, as no outside force appears willing to confront ISIS in a symmetrical way.”

    The later sentence is confusing, is it improbable because no outside force is willing to confront ISIS?”

  8. intelNews says:

    @TFH: I changed it to make it clearer. I hope this helps. [JF]

  9. Mike says:

    Does ISIS have any sort of effective intelligence organization, or do they simply act on perceived intelligence?

  10. intelNews says:

    @Mike: It appears that it does. See here. [JF]

  11. Tom McCabe says:

    To Rob,

    The ISF/Sunni tribal militias took back Tikrit (after the Shia militias and the (supposed) Iranian Patton Soleimani failed,) and are still holding it. They held on to part of Ramadi for over a year, and will probably take at least part of it back. Still looks like a strategic stalemate overall in Iraq.

    RE the partition of Iraq into three states, quite possible, but if so, we can’t afford to let the Sunni one be IS.

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