Is the fall of Ramadi as unimportant as the U.S. claims? Facing ISIS-the Iraqi conundrum.
As I write this post, Ramadi, the largest city and capital of al Anbar Governate, is about to fall to ISIS. Part of the Sunni Triangle, Ramadi is strategically located on the Euphrates River, only 70 miles from Baghdad. And yet Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey said its loss was “not symbolic in any way.”
Perhaps his politically ignorant comment was made to downplay probable fall-out from if Ramadi is lost. If Dempsey truly believes that this city, which is the largest Dulaimi tribal populated one in the Triangle, isn’t symbolically important in the fight against ISIS, then it is no surprise that ISIS has found such fertile ground in the Sunni dominated parts of Iraq. Let’s hope that General Dempsey will be overruled.
In order to grasp the symbolic, if not strategic, role that Ramadi and the rest of the Sunni Triangle plays in the fight against ISIS, it may be worthwhile to recollect the conundrum that we face in Iraq. Our Allies to the North and South, Turkey and Saudi Arabia respectively, are Sunni countries. To the East, Sunnis comprise a majority of the population, but it is ruled by Bashar al-Assad, a non-religious Shia branched Alawite. Iran, to the East, is Shia. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was governed as a non-religious Sunni controlled state. Most of the government and virtually all of his elite (for the region) Republican Guard and local police were Sunni. When the U.S. quickly marched north through Iraq, it failed to recruit the Sunni Republican Guard and police and they largely fled. Many joined the various Sunni tribal militia. It is important to remember that ISIS has a primarily religious agenda, and the tribal militia, for the most part do not. But they clearly embrace their Sunni heritage. So how do you defeat a Sunni religious army who are experienced fighters with a poorly trained and inexperienced Iraqi national army?
With the sectarian divide that exists in Iraq, the answer is more obvious than easily put into practice. Clearly the non-religious Sunni tribal militia have to be recruited into the Iraqi military forces fighting ISIS. But the government that was formed never lived up to its promises to the Sunnis. The Shia dominated government under Nouri al Maliki failed to produce the promised integration of Sunnis into decision-making, as well as the important sharing of Iraq’s estimable oil revenue. Though Iraq received more U.S. military equipment than any other country, little of it reached the hands of Sunni tribal militia. Indeed sectarian violence increased dramatically. Whatever pressures the U.S. put on al Maliki to fulfill his promises, they were obviously less than needed. Al Maliki failed to differentiate between the more militant Sunni militias and those who were more sympathetic to a unified Iraq. At the end of 2011, the last of the coalition forces withdrew. When al Qaeda supported groups launched military offensives, fighting them was left largely in the hands of Sunni tribal militias, whose pleas even then for some of the U.S. supplied weaponry went unheeded. Al Maliki promised, and once again failed to deliver, both an integration of the Sunnis and the transition of the military to self-reliance. The latter was exposed when ISIS quickly took control of heavily fortified Mosul. The Iraqi forces, though outnumbering the ISIS insurgents by a considerable number, fled their posts, leaving behind the weapons. At this point, President Obama ordered air support back to Iraq. When al Maliki, under considerable international pressure, was replaced by Haidar al-Abadi, there was some hope for the necessary integration. These hopes were quickly dashed and that is the situation right up to the present time. This was made apparent in the embarrassing early futile attempts by the Iraqi army to retake Tikrit. The use of Shia militias in the attack was a terrible mistake, given the Sunni nature of the city’s residents. At this point, the U.S. stepped up bombing of Tikrit in exchange for Abadi’s promise not to include the Shia militias in the next attempt. With a force numbering at least 25,000 to ISIS’ estimated 2000, both the residents of Tikrit and the ISIS fighters largely withdrew.
Without bringing the Sunni tribal militias on board, the Iraqi Army is seriously over-matched. According to the N.Y. Times, Lt. Col. John Schwemmer, upon returning to Iraq during the current crisis, was shocked at the state of the Iraqi soldiers: “It’s pretty incredible,” he said. “I was kind of surprised. What training did they have after we left?” The Times answered, “Apparently, not much. The current, woeful state of the Iraqi military raises the question not so much of whether the Americans left too soon, but whether a new round of deployments for training will have any more effect than the last.”
Whom are we fooling? Ourselves, perhaps. President Obama, following his meeting with Abadi last week, noted: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.” He further “expressed confidence that the new Shiite-led government in Baghdad was doing more to include Sunni and Kurdish minorities.”
Yet Ramadi is about to fall. Abadi’s failure to accomplish any of the things that Obama praised him for has left the Dulaimi tribespeople, whose numbers total three million in Iraq alone, seeing a Shia dominated Iraqi military avoid a conflict that they would surely lose. If we find this unimportant symbolically, then we are in serious trouble. And the potential target in the clearly important Sunni Triangle will be an impossible task for a Shia dominated Iraqi army to accomplish.