President Barack Obama’s military strategy to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, under fire from nearly every quarter in Washington and on the campaign trail, is finally poised for a key victory.
The Pentagon on Tuesday declared it “inevitable” that Iraqi forces backed by U.S. air strikes and military advisers will soon retake the city of Ramadi, whose fall to the Sunni terrorist group earlier this year marked a major setback for the president’s approach.
The reliance on some 6,000 Sunni tribal fighters — as opposed to the Shiite militias accused of looting and committing other crimes against Iraq’s Sunni minority when ISIL was driven from the city of Tikrit in April — is widely considered a solid achievement in itself. And it is perhaps the best evidence so far that inserting large numbers of U.S. ground troops is not necessarily crucial to success in Iraq.
The loss of Ramadi in May was a serious blow to the Shiite-led Iraqi government — and a surprise for U.S. officials. At the time, Defense Secretary Ash Carter made waves by asserting that Iraqi army troops showed “no will to fight.”
But the Sunni tribesmen “know the terrain a lot better than most,” Ali Al-Mawlawi, a spokesman for the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, told POLITICO, adding that “the Iraqi army will continue to do a lot of the heavy lifting” in the operation now underway.
He said the goal was to have Ramadi firmly back in Iraqi government hands by the end of the month.
The Pentagon was also clearly banking on a battlefield win to close out a year that saw ISIL’s global reach and ability to mount or inspire terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States expand — despite a stepped-up air assault that has weakened its grip on vast territory in Iraq and Syria.
“The fall of Ramadi is inevitable,” Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters from Baghdad. He estimated there were about 250 to 350 ISIL fighters left in the city and said Iraqi forces, after crossing the Euphrates River, were working to drive them from the dense, urban terrain.
Warren added that Iraqi forces recovered an ISIL document in nearby Fallujah — also under the group’s control — that directed its fighters to impersonate Iraqi forces and commit atrocities to discredit the Iraqi government.
“We’re starting to see a change in their behavior that may be related to desperation,” he said.
Asked if the U.S. had put pressure on the Iraqi government not to use Shiite forces, however, he declined to answer.
Close observers of the conflict were nevertheless buoyed by the developments.
James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012 and was deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, said the fall of Ramadi would be a “significant victory.”
It would show that “the formula can work, that we can get the Sunni Arabs to fight,” he said. “This was done without the Shiite militias.”
But Obama administration officials were trying to lower expectations, warning of a “tough operation” that could see bloody street-by-street fighting. “This isn’t going to be an overnight operation,” said one senior administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The Obama team “will not be spiking the football,” the official added, citing the long road ahead in removing the terrorist group from its strongholds.
Perhaps more important than military success will be filling the vacuum in which ISIL’s self-declared caliphate has thrived, according to current and former U.S. and Iraqi officials.
They contend that serious that gaps remain in the Iraqi government’s ability to wrest control of then hold Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city — and build the long-term good will with the country’s disaffected Sunni population and keep ISIL at bay.
“The federal police and local police are also very, very important. Long term, it’s important to make sure the local government and the provincial council is back on its feet,” said al-Mawlawi, the Iraqi embassy spokesman.
Locking down Iraq’s nearby western border with Syria, where ISIL has been able to take advantage of the civil war to get an even deeper foothold, also remains a weak spot that allows movement of Islamic State fighters, al-Mawlawi said.
“What we want to do is de-couple the two states in the conflict.”
Others warned against reading too much into any military’s success in Ramadi, saying political reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite leaders is necessary to ensure a lasting peace.
“If we keep taking bites of the apple and focusing on battles one by one, then we’re really missing the bigger picture,” said Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who was a top aide to Gen. David Petraeus during the Iraq War and now teaches military history at the Ohio State University.
Ramadi, he said, “is symbolically meaningful,” given that it was the birthplace of the 2006 Anbar Awakening in which Sunni tribes rose up against insurgent groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq — a movement that coincided with a U.S. troop surge and that is considered a turning point of the Iraq War.
But, Mansoor said, “I think it’s far too early to tell whether this is a validation of the president’s strategy.”
Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee in September that “the sustainable defeat of ISIS” would require a political solution in which minority Kurds and Sunnis “are again given a stake” in the country’s future.
“As important as fighting on the front lines is, and pushing back ISIS out of Ramadi and out of Mosul and so forth, the future of Iraq is going to be determined by politics in Baghdad,” Petraeus told the Senate panel.
Former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker agreed, saying the only way to shrink ISIL was to “make the Sunni population in the area see that they’ve got a good future that doesn’t involve the Islamic State.”
“If you look at the trajectory of Al Qaeda in Iraq and now the Islamic State, they find space where the population is disaffected from the government,” Crocker said.
The senior administration official also said that the U.S. would continue to impress upon Iraqi leaders the importance of having a government that is responsive to the Sunni population, which has been susceptible to the Islamic State’s siren in part because the Shiite-led central government has alienated it.
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