Analysis |

Forget Ramadi, the Real Battle Is in Syria

President Bashar Assad is facing growing pressure from rebels in Damascus and the Alawite enclave.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Iraq security forces withdraw from Ramadi, west of Baghdad. May 17, 2015.
Iraq security forces withdraw from Ramadi, west of Baghdad. May 17, 2015. Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Islamic State’s success Sunday in capturing the city of Ramadi, only 110 kilometers (about 70 miles) from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, has brought in its wake a number of terrifying forecasts concerning the organization’s continued advance. Despite the importance of Ramadi, which is the capital of Anbar Province, it is doubtful whether the raising of the black flag of Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) over what remains of the government buildings in Ramadi necessarily reflects anything other than a singular achievement.

That’s because it seems the most dramatic regional battles are currently taking place in Syria: Over the pressure Sunni rebel groups are putting on President Bashar Assad’s regime in and around Damascus; the fighting in the strategic Qalamoun Mountains, on the border between Syria and Lebanon; and, most important, the advance of opposition forces toward the Alawite enclave in northwest Syria.

ISIS’ success in Ramadi can be attributed to much the same reasons the organization won a series of impressive victories last summer: Exploiting the element of surprise against the disorganized fighting demonstrated by the Iraqi army and Shi’ite militias; its high level of mobility; and its willingness to sacrifice soldiers in dangerous moves, in order to accumulate assets on the ground.

Despite the support it received from the United States through aerial bombing, the Iraqi government did not learn its lesson, and failed to carry out the counterattack it said it would in Anbar Province. Consequently, the last remnants of the Iraqi army retreated from the provincial capital this week. However, as has been seen over the past year, ISIS has run into difficulties more than once holding onto its assets after conquering them. There is a huge difference between a highly motivated attack to capture a target, and the ability and motivation to hold onto it over a long period of time.

When asked occasionally about the success of the U.S. campaign to aid Arab countries in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, senior American military officers have remained cautiously optimistic for some time. They say the efforts against the jihadist group have had some success in containing its offensive operations, and sometimes even in taking back some of the territory it controls, systematically attacking its leadership and closing down some of the channels it uses to make money.

Based on the situation as the Americans understand it, the enormous momentum that ISIS enjoyed over the past year has been halted, and the organization’s true level of influence is gradually declining over time.

The campaign against ISIS is just one of the many conflicts occurring in Syria, of course, with the most important being the rebel effort – a very uncoordinated one – to overthrow Assad. This is where Assad’s troubles are growing. So much so that the Israeli defense establishment does not rule out the possibility that the Syrian president may be forced to flee the capital, in light of the frequent attacks by rebels who have been shelling his palace from their strongholds in the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus. Ultimately, he may have to concentrate his defense on the Alawite region in northwest Syria, around Latakia and the coastal city of Tartus.

Except, it is actually right there, near Latakia, where a critical battle for Assad’s survival may take place very soon. Over the past two months, the rebels have earned a great many victories in northern Syria and continue their stubborn advance westward: From Aleppo to Idlib, and from there to the city of Jisr al-Shughur, and then onto the Nebi Yunis ridge – from which they can shell Latakia effectively – in the heart of the Alawite territory. To do so, it seems the rebels will focus their efforts and speed up their reinforcement of troops in the area, with the goal of taking control of further territory. This double-edged pressure, around the areas of Damascus and the Alawite region, has, for the first time in a long while, threatened the stability of Assad’s rule. Until recently, it seemed he had adapted to the problems of fighting, and succeeded in thwarting the attacks of his enemies.

A great deal of attention from the Arab and foreign media is still focused on the battle in the Qalamoun Mountains. There, the Syrian army and Hezbollah are trying to reestablish control of the corridor through which weapons and troops are funneled between Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah has loudly trumpeted its successes in that campaign, but in reality it has taken over mostly open areas that the Sunni rebels chose to leave. Hezbollah even held a tour for Western journalists last week in the positions it captured, but failed to convince its media guests it had made any real gains.

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