Analysis |

For ISIS, It’s Still a Very Long Way to Baghdad

The Americans are faced with tough decisions, and so are the Iranians.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Rebels firing weapons in an offensive to take control of the al-Mastouma army base which is controlled by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Assad, near Idlib this week.
Rebels firing weapons in an offensive to take control of the al-Mastouma army base which is controlled by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Assad, near Idlib this week.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Normally, driving the 126 kilometers separating Baghdad and Ramadi should take less than an hour and a half. Six hours to the west of Ramadi the driver would reach the border with Jordan. A superficial glance at the map could naturally arouse the fear that these small distances are not a major challenge for the organization that already controls most of the territory of the desert Anbar Province and after the conquest of Ramadi, the capital of the province, all that is left is for its vehicles to drive east to Baghdad or west to the Jordanian border.

But to reach Baghdad, Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, will first need to capture the town of Habbaniya, east of Ramadi, and then reconquer Fallujah, where the organization was defeated by Shi’ite militias, cross the defensive lines of the Iraqi army deployed on the outskirts of Baghdad and wage street-to-street urban warfare against superior forces and under an aerial attack by the forces of the Western coalition, Shi’ite militias and Sunni volunteers. This is a quite a different mission from capturing Ramadi or Mosul.

There are already reports coming out of Iraq that 3,000 members of the Shi’ite militias, who have been trained and funded by Iran, have entered the area of Habbaniya – which is 33 kilometers east of Ramadi – as well as the arming of some 1,000 Sunni tribesmen, and of American planes conducting bombing attacks in this area.

Yesterday, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan came to Baghdad for a quick visit to coordinate with his Iraqi counterpart Khaled Al-Obeidi the possibility of a joint attack to liberate Ramadi and block any attempt by ISIS to advance in the direction of Baghdad.

Washington may not be pleased about the integration of the Shi’ite militias in the fighting for Ramadi, since it fears that alongside the war against ISIS violent clashes will also break out in the region between the Sunni tribes and the Shi’ite forces – but for now Washington has no better solution for victory.

The big American achievement, the killing of the “finance minister” of ISIS known as Abu Sayyaf and the taking prisoner of his wife, evaporated in a moment in light of the great success of ISIS in capturing Ramadi – which exposed the strategic weakness of the Americans. This strategy, which is based on pinpoint attacks from the air and long-term training of Iraqi troops, cannot provide a short-term solution or drive ISIS out of the territory it controls.

As has been made very clear in the battles in northern Iraq and Syria, only ground forces, such as those of the Kurds or the rival militias to ISIS in Syria, have succeeded in stopping ISIS, and in a number of cases they have even driven them out of the areas they once controlled.

On the other hand, Iraq has large ground forces, but as it turned out in the campaign for Mosul in June 2014 and now in Ramadi, the Iraqi army does not know how to fight a war against the quick and mobile forces of ISIS, and in many cases also does not want to have to fight such battles. So as in Mosul, in Ramadi too we saw embarrassing sights of Iraqi soldiers deployed in protected bases who fled for their lives with military vehicles, many barely hanging on to the sides, leaving large quantities of weapons and ammunition behind, which fell in to the hands of ISIS.

Reports from Iraq say that over 500 people were killed, many of them Iraqi soldiers, in the attack on Ramadi; and some 150 police officers were captured by ISIS – who most likely will execute them in one of its exhibitionist horror shows.

Facing this American and Arab hesitation to send ground forces into Iraq, the only readily available force left at the moment would come from the direction of Iran, which for the past few months has been operating its air force over parts of Iraq. Iran has trained and well-equipped military units which can be sent to Iraq, on the condition that the Iraqi government approves their entry. Here Washington is expected to face another threatening dilemma that will present it with the hard choice of whether to encourage Iran to send ground forces, or to act itself – and not just in the air – in order to destroy ISIS’ control of Ramadi.

The capture of Ramadi now puts the planning of the big campaign to free Mosul in danger, a plan which the Iraqi government, Kurdish forces and American administration have been laboring over. Ramadi is now a much greater threat to Iraq because of its proximity to Baghdad, while Mosul has been under occupation for almost a year and postponing its liberation will not really matter in any way – especially as the actions of the Iraqi army in the fight for Ramadi made it clear that an attack on Mosul at this stage could well turn into a major defeat for the Iraqis and the Western coalition. And this is how, even more than just the conquest of Ramadi – the second provincial capital ISIS has captured – the organization has succeeded in showing the full wretchedness of the Iraqi regular forces, and forced the decision makers in Washington, Tehran, Baghdad and European capitals to make a decision they had wanted to avoid: whether to enter into a comprehensive war in the Middle East.

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