Are U.S. Interests in Iraq Any More Secure After Ramadi?
For the first time since entire divisions of its army disintegrated before Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in the summer of 2014, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have reportedly beaten ISIS in the battle for control of Ramadi, a major city in Anbar Province nearly seventy miles west of Baghdad. While an important battlefield success, the significance of this victory must to be viewed in a regional context. Overall, the situation is not looking very good for U.S. interests.
According to numerous reports, the ISF drove most of ISIS out of Ramadi, but the plan is for local Sunni tribes to hold the city and prevent a reemergence of ISIS. It was Sunni tribes in the Anbar province that originally drove out Al Qaeda, ISIS’s progenitor, with the help of the U.S. surge in 2008. But the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad did not fulfill their promises of political equality to the Sunnis, which led to anti-government protests in 2012 and made ISIS’s initial entry into Ramadi and other cities in Anbar relatively easy. Shia-dominated Baghdad is going to have to do a better job with the Sunni tribes for this tactical victory to have staying power.
Yet even if an ISF victory in Ramadi continues to hold, there are other significant challenges awaiting the Iraqi military. The major cities of Fallujah and Mosul are not far from Ramadi and both are still under full control of ISIS. Fallujah has a population of 300,000 and Mosul’s is 600,000. Some reports suggest that before the fall of Ramadi, ISIS had evacuated all but 300 fighters in order to slow the ISF capture. If the Islamic radicals decide to make a stand in Fallujah and Mosul, it is unclear whether the ISF will be able to liberate those cities. If the fighting degrades into the kind of inconclusive struggle seen in the four-year battle for some of Syria’s largest contested cities, Iraqi resolve might wane.
The fight for Fallujah and Mosul may be far costlier and bloodier aside from ISIS’s resolve and limited ISF capacity; the recent deterioration between Sunni states Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Shia Iran threatens to play out in proxy altercations in Iraq. In order to counter the influence of Shia strength in Iraq, Saudi Arabia may continue to covertly support the mostly-Sunni Islamic State. Iran, meanwhile, would have an equally pressing reason to prevent Saudi interests from succeeding on their border. Tehran presently has significant influence over Baghdad, and is unlikely to lose that influence without considerable effort.
All of these local competing interests jeopardize America’s hopes for security in the region. If the Iraqi Security Forces, benefitting from significant military support from Washington, begin to make significant progress in rolling back ISIS gains in Anbar and elsewhere, there is the real chance that other Sunni states–especially Saudi Arabia–could increase clandestine support for the ISIS to prevent them from increasing Iranian support. If the Iraqi forces lose the battle, Iran and other Shia groups will likely begin ramping up their covert support.
Thus, the fight inside Iraq has significant implications for actors throughout the region, many of whom have competing interests. This is bad news for American interests. U.S. national security interests are best served by the eradication of ISIS and stability throughout the region, even among our friends and competitors. Yet the deck is stacked against the resolution of the fight within Iraq, and the fight outside of Iraq seems to be worsening.
If U.S. security in the Middle East were only based upon whether the ISF defeated a radical Islamic terror group, there would be a plausible chance of success. But chaos, violence, and disunity unleashed (or at least exacerbated) by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 have expanded to include major state players, many of whom have chosen to take an active role in the war within Iraq. Any near term peaceful resolution to the fighting in Iraq are now more remote than ever.
Daniel L. Davis is a widely published analyst on national security and foreign policy. He retired as a Lt. Col. after 21 years in the U.S. Army, including four combat deployments. The views in these articles are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Government. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Marine Corps./Lance Cpl. James F. Cline III.