By R. Dayakar
Even in the midst of a general economic gloom that has been caused by a fall in oil prices, halving of the state budget and the consequent all-round austerity leading to drastic reduction in public expenditure, spurt in unemployment and sizeable cuts in government salaries, the unfurling of the Iraqi flag on the governor’s office in Ramadi following its liberation from the clutches of the Islamic State (IS) on December 27 by the government forces was received in Iraq with great jubilation, a kind that has rekindled hope in this battered region. The eviction of IS from the Sunni-populated Ramadi by the forces of Baghdad with West’s support, particularly from USA and UK, is being viewed as a turning point in the fight against IS.
Anbar, whose capital is Ramadi, is Iraq’s largest province in the western side of the country. It is also one of the three Sunni strongholds, with the other two being Tikrit and Mosul. The province has an international boundary with Saudi Arabia in the south and with Jordan and Syria in the west.
Speaking of its strategic importance, both in terms of men and material it has provided through time, the province of Anbar has accounted for a sizeable portion of recruits from Iraq into the Ottoman army and subsequently in the army of free Iraq under successive regimes in Baghdad until disbanded by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003.
By virtue of serving as a traditional recruiting ground for the army, it has been reportedly observed that the people of Anbar have developed martial air about themselves, with a war-like self-perception. In the post-2003 insurgency in Iraq, Anbar saw major skirmishes and accounted for the maximum casualties caused on the American side. Its people however, are generally seen as a tolerant lot, guided by tribal ethics and code of conduct. In fact, they had played a crucial role along with Sunni militia from other provinces in countering Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2008 by joining the US created Awakening Group (Al-Sahwa).
IS had seized Ramadi in May 2015 in a surprise raid forcing the government forces to flee. Subsequent efforts by Baghdad to retake Ramadi did not succeed until last week. The eventual capture of Ramadi on December 27, 2015 by the government forces was the result of well-coordinated moves by the Iraqi government and the US-led coalition forces.
Given that the operation to weed out IS from what had appeared to be one of its strongholds proved to be highly successful, some observations on the Ramadi campaign are in order. Firstly, the local Sunni tribal militia contributed in the combat, which, apart from helping in driving out IS, also prevented a sectarian backlash, denying IS an opening to rouse anti-Shia fervour among the local Sunnis. Iran-backed Shia militia which had played a central part earlier in Tikrit’s liberation from IS had no role in the Ramadi operation and were kept out at the instance of US. This measure diminished the support to IS among the Sunni tribes.
Secondly, the US gave crucial support in the campaign by providing weapons, training, intelligence, battlefield advice and air support. The role played by the US in the Ramadi operation can very well be seen as a reaction to the growing Russian prominence in the larger Syrian conflict. The successful recapturing of Ramadi has certainly had the effect of eclipsing the growing Russian popularity in Iraq which has been demonstrated in its direct involvement and firm stand in the anti-IS fighting in Syria.
Thirdly, with the exit of IS from Ramadi, threat to Baghdad which is barely 100 kilometers away stands minimized and the Baghdad-Amman highway that passes through Anbar may have become safe for troops’ use to some extent, ensuring further safety for the Iraqi capital.
Fourthly, the decisive victory in Ramadi bolsters Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi politically who lost no time in rushing to the liberated city to hail the victorious troops. Fifthly, it vindicates President Barack Obama’s formula to roll back, degrade and decimate IS without the US boots on the ground. Sixthly, there were no reported instances of sectarian or revenge killings after the retaking of Ramadi. This augurs well for any curative approach to the sectarian strife. Lastly, Ramadi may represent the penultimate campaign in eliminating IS from Iraq, with the next in focus for the government being Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city which is 360 km from Baghdad, with sprawling urban dwellings and a Sunni population of 1.5 million. Strategy and tactics used in Ramadi will provide a template to be finessed and replicated in freeing the remaining sole IS citadel in Mosul.
Curiously, there were no statements on casualties, either collateral or military, in the Ramadi operation. Surprisingly the IS fighters who were reported to be in low thousands appeared to have escaped without being captured or trailed by the government forces, despite the pre-battle claim by the army spokesman of IS to having been surrounded from all sides with no escape routes.
Similarly, no information has been made available on the nature of the understanding reached with the Iran-backed Shia militia in keeping them out of Ramadi. The Shia militia had indeed fought in the initial attempts to retake Ramadi and suffered losses. The battlefield victory needs to be followed up by Baghdad with matching political steps to sustain the military gains and to prevent re-emergence of the IS. With 80 % of the buildings reportedly destroyed, reconstruction should be a priority and return of the displaced people needs to be ensured. One cannot forget that IS, after being driven out of Tikrit in March 2015 by the government forces, had flung a surprise at the world by taking over Ramadi in May 2015 without a fight. Also Fallujah, a town in Anbar between Baghdad and Ramadi, continues to be in the hands of IS.
Success in Ramadi and the ongoing steady gains in Syria in the fight against IS seem to foretell that the end of IS in the Levant may not be very far. However, the Syrian question cannot be addressed fully without tackling IS in Iraq. In other words, an enduring political solution in Syria requires IS to be neutralized in Iraq as well. This makes the next stage in the anti-IS drive, which is centering on Mosul, extremely crucial particularly as IS has displayed great resilience even in the face of drying-up finances, a decline in recruitment and in numbers of the middle-rung commanders and its operational space getting shrunk by half.
Kurdish militia which had successes in expelling IS from some key areas near Mosul including the Mosul dam, the strategic Sinjar town and Assyrian villages, will certainly have a key role to play in getting rid of IS from the town of Mosul as well. Such a joint fight may face some political uncertainties in materializing, and perhaps some backlashes as well. While Shia militias are anathema to Sunnis because of the sectarian rivalry and were excluded from the action in Ramadi, Kurdish role in Mosul may too get circumscribed as its militia is viewed with some caution in Baghdad for the suspected territorial ambitions of its political masters and their contacts with the leaders in neighbouring Turkey. Mosul campaign therefore is likely to take a different complexion for the political and diplomatic challenges it poses in addition to operational issues.
(Ambassador R. Dayakar is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq and Jordan. He can be reached at: email@example.com)