The Ramadi debacle

ISIS continues to advance as Syria and Iraq continue to disintegrate.

Sunnis flee the city of Ramadi, Iraq, May 15, after Islamic State militants raised their black flag over the local government compound. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sunnis flee the city of Ramadi, Iraq, May 15, after Islamic State militants raised their black flag over the local government compound.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
OPTIMISTIC REPORTS of pushing back ISIS have turned out to be premature.
The Islamic State made inroads in early May in Syria and, more significantly, in Iraq. The strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi in the Anbar region fell to ISIS militants when superior numbers of Iraqi army troops tamely withdrew in mid-May.
The Ramadi debacle replayed familiar scenes of Iraqi soldiers and officers fleeing the frontlines, abandoning precious vehicles, hardware, ammunition, and weapons, only recently supplied to them by the US. Hundreds were killed in the battles, and tens of thousands of the city’s dwellers fled.
A year ago, the world was astonished by the rapid success of the Islamic State terrorists, who swept the Iraqi plains and deserts, and took control of nearly 50 percent of the disintegrating country.
Riding pickup trucks, and carrying their black flags and Kalashnikovs, they conquered Mosul, the second largest city in the country.
They captured oil fields, which generate their major revenues from illegal sales. They took control of Haditha, the largest dam on the Euphrates River, threatening to drown Baghdad.
They swept southward and were stopped just 40 kilometers from the capital, which was in the reach of their artillery. They bit into large chunks of the Kurdish autonomous region and succeeded in taking over swaths of Syria. After demolishing the border crossings between the two countries, they changed their name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
At a certain stage, ISIS even threatened to take control of the border crossings with Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Jordan is of special interest for Israel, and in the past year there have been growing concerns of an ISIS encroachment into the Hashemite Kingdom.
Despite a war in 1967 between the two countries in which Jordan lost the West Bank, Israel has been the best guarantor of the survivability of the regime in Amman. It helped foil a 1958 attempt to overthrow the Hashemite house, and in 1970 Israeli warnings thwarted a Syrian invasion of Jordan. Israel and Jordan are partners in the war against regional and global terrorist groups, and cooperate with intelligence sharing and joint operations.
King Abdullah has proved to be a competent leader when it comes to defending his kingdom’s security and national interests. He sent troops to confront ISIS, improved Jordan’s intelligence capabilities and there was no need for any major Israeli intervention, once again, to rush to the assistance of the monarchy.
In the wake of the Islamic State’s successes, US President Barack Obama’s administration patched together an international coalition, which attacked from the air. Simultaneously, the US sent in advisers and instructors, and renewed the supply of weapons to rehabilitate the Iraqi army. Iran also sent advisers and intelligence officials to reinforce the Iraqi Shi’ite militias and began supplying weapons to the Kurds.
Early this year the combined efforts in Iraq and Syria seemed to yield considerable achievements. ISIS was defeated in battle in the Kurdish city of Kobani, which sits on the border of Syria and Turkey. The Kurds seized control of Kirkuk, the Iraqi oil city, and slowly began pushing back ISIS.
The anti-ISIS forces, led by the Kurds, captured the Haditha dam and regained control of a huge chunk of territory, approximately the size of pre-1967 Israel. US special forces began operating in Syria and Iraq seeking good intelligence, in order to capture or assassinate senior members of ISIS. In mid-May, the Pentagon announced that Delta Force, in a daring overnight raid in Syria, had assassinated the head of Islamic State’s oil production wing, along with 40 other people.
The air strikes have caused great losses within ISIS, killing thousands of its members.
Some months ago, it was reported that the movement’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was seriously wounded in one of the strikes and neutralized.
ISIS’s momentum has been stalled since the summer of 2014, according to briefings by Pentagon officials earlier this year. They claimed that ISIS was in defensive mode, and predicted that the Iraqi army would embark on a major offensive to retake Mosul. It seemed it was only a matter of time before the ISIS phenomenon would diminish, back to its previous small scale, before it caught the world’s consciousness by surprise.
But, in May it became clear that, despite setbacks, ISIS has managed to retain its offensive capabilities. By recapturing the city of Ramadi, ISIS once again threatens Baghdad.
The distance between Ramadi and the Iraqi capital is 120 kilometers. Ramadi is located in an area known as the “Sunni Triangle,” alongside Fallujah and Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
Ramadi was under ISIS siege for more than a year, but due to political and sectarian disagreements, the Iraqi central government did not manage to gain control of the city. The government is run by the Shi’ites, and under the near complete influence of Iran. The Sunnis are apparently more afraid of the Shi’ite soldiers and militias than of the ISIS extremists.
Thus, the situation in Iraq has become more complicated.
Iraqi government officials continue to boast that their military will soon regain control of Ramadi. But these are likely empty promises.
The only force capable of recapturing Ramadi from ISIS are the Shi’ite militias, since the US, the West and the Arab Sunni states have no desire to put “boots on the ground.”
Therefore, the US administration understands that in order to put the brakes on the Islamic State it will have to rely on Iran and its sponsored militias to be used as cannon fodder. In real terms, Iraq has failed to become a state and is now firmly divided into three entities: Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis.
This division has only strengthened Iran’s position. And while Jerusalem and Riyadh see Iran as the root of problem, the US views Tehran as the solution.
But this does not apply to Syria, where the situation is even more complex. There, unlike in Iraq, the Obama administration perceives Iran as a problem because of its support of the Assad regime ‒ or whatever is left of it. In Syria, Iran and its proxy, the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, fight a rearguard battle to defend Assad. If he falls, a domino effect may follow and Hezbollah will lose its hinterland.
Assad has, for the last two decades, been the vital link in promoting Iranian aspirations, via Hezbollah, for access to the Mediterranean and as a forward post against Israel.
However, Assad, Iran and Hezbollah recently have been under strong military pressure from the opposition forces of all sorts, including ISIS. The areas the Assad regime and its Shi’ite allies control have shrunk, especially in the eastern part of Syria.
In late May, Islamic State militants took full control of Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra.
The Syrian army, which defended the city with its nearby ancient archeological site and a military airport, withdrew. Palmyra lies 210 kilometers northeast of Damascus in a desert that stretches to the Iraqi frontier to the east. The fall of the city potentially opens the way for ISIS to advance toward key government- held areas, including the capital and the city of Homs.
It is unlikely that ISIS or other opposition groups ‒ moderate or radical ‒ will be able to take over Damascus and Homs in the foreseeable future, if at all. It is more probable that both Syria and Iraq will continue to disintegrate while the ISIS phenomenon is not going to fade away. 
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at and tweets at yossi_melman