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The Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS/ISIL) advances on a major Iraqi city, and Baghdad’s forces – while outnumbering and outgunning the attackers – flee in utter disarray. Last June it was Mosul. Exactly eleven months later, last Sunday, it was Ramadi.
A year of sustained U.S. effort to make the Iraqi army a viable fighting force (preceded by a decade of training and lavishly equipping it), and eight months of USAF attacks on ISIS targets, have not changed the strategic equation.
This is a huge victory for the IS. Ramadi is the capital of the Sunni Anbar province, only 70 miles from Baghdad. It is a major city the U.S. Army fought hard to control in 2005-6. Its fall demonstrates that the IS can continue a steady conquest of territory and major population centers regardless of the U.S.-driven change of Iraq’s government to make it more inclusive of the Sunni minority, which proved to be a window-dressing exercise. According to Peter Mansoor, a CNN military analyst (U.S. Army retired), “The ISIS victory in Ramadi, after more than a year of fighting, shows the Sunni militant group's broader resilience in the face of sustained airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition and pressure from Kurdish forces in the north.”
The responses from Baghdad and Washington are reminiscent of the Wehrmacht communiques after the fall of Stalingrad. The Iraqi government says reinforcements are on their way, but Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi says the Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitary force (aka the Popular Mobilization Units, PMU), will do the job. This is not going to happen, period. PMUs are 100% Shiite, Iranian-backed and trained units. They look upon Sunni Anbar as a territory to be conquered, not “liberated.” “That would be a different bloodbath on its own. It would be Sunni against Shia. Who knows what that would provoke?” said Robert Baer, a CNN intelligence and security analyst.
In reality the Shiite intervention would provoke yet another round of sectarian bloodletting in which America does not have an interest. Iraq is a tragically failed state, which is the result of the 2003 invasion. “Friendly” Sunni tribes have hedged their bets, and the outcome favors the IS. Taking out a mid-level accountant for al-Baghdadi’s domain – loudly heralded in the media – changes nothing. Ramadi, the centerpiece of Gen. David Petraeus’s “surge,” has fallen. The American strategy to counter it is in disarray.
This unhappy outcome was mathematically predictable. As I wrote eight months ago, a serious anti-IS/ISIS strategy urgently requires greater clarity on two key regional players: Iran and Bashar al-Assad. What is the projected role for Iran in an anti-IS strategy, a major regional player and a key actor in Shia Iraq, with which the Obama administration is evidently keen to strike a comprehensive deal on nuclear issues? How can a successful anti-IS campaign be pursued in Syria while there is this ongoing U.S. ambivalence about the only military force capable of countering the jihadists on the ground, the Syrian government army?
The incongruities and ambivalences of Washington’ planners cost lives and strategic assets. It is time to quit the Middle East. It is irrelevant to America’s grand strategy, however rationally defined.
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