George Petrolekas served in the military in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has been an adviser to senior commanders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
The recapture of Ramadi this week is a glimmer of hope in what has been a year-long fight against the Islamic State, often bereft of positive news. It would be foolish to overstate Iraqi success as a turning point; the Iraqi city was lightly defended and is 10 times smaller than Mosul. Neither was it a pivotal or strategic prize for IS.
Yet the success should not be understated. For the first time in more than a year, Iraqi forces have successfully co-ordinated with coalition air power to achieve a palpable result, in contrast to past performances where billions of dollars had been spent on training and equipping the Iraqis, only to see them flee in panic in the face of IS fighters.
Most importantly, the Iraqi army used primarily Sunni soldiers without relying on Shia militias or proxy Iranian forces that have undermined the coalition in the past and estranged the local Sunni population, whose support will be so vital to any future success.
After months of doubt, it appears that the coalition strategy to retrain and reconstitute the Iraqi security forces, augmented by Sunni tribal fighters in common cause, may be paying off.
This co-ordinated operation did not run headlong into an assault with what might have been debilitating and morale-busting casualties – both for the Iraqis and the civilian population who, many reports indicate, were being used as human shields.
Slowly and methodically, the Iraqis bisected Ramadi, gaining control of suburbs, surrounding the city and successfully severing IS supply lines, diminishing its ability to conduct a sustained defence.
Air strikes were used judiciously but, in a significant departure from the past, the air cover was persistent and continuous. This made a difference, as planes could react dynamically to any changing situation moment by moment, unlike the coalition air strategy over the past year.
Notwithstanding the rows and rows of buildings that had been mined, and IEDs everywhere, enormous efforts were made to avoid civilian casualties – a critical point, given that the Sunnis still in Ramadi might have interpreted a vicious assault as Baghdad’s indifference to them. Ramadi offers Iraqis the opportunity to change that perception.
Optimism exists as the post-liberation governance of the city relies on Sunni administrators and police. Baghdad may have acknowledged the errors of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose brutal repression of Sunnis and their disenfranchisement from Iraqi civil society, government and the military squandered every single gain of the Anbar Awakening. Mr. al-Maliki’s rule tore Iraq apart and made Sunnis view the Islamic State if not as a lesser of two evils, at least as their protector.
Importantly, Ramadi challenges the aura of invincibility that the Islamic State relies upon to govern and attract adherents. In six weeks, the Kurds, with the assistance of U.S. special forces, cut a key line of supply between Mosul, in northern Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. A large-scale attack by IS against Kurdish positions left many thinking the move was suicidal at best, rather than a credible military endeavour. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had to rally his adherents amid these difficulties, showing that IS, too, must be concerned.
What appeared to be a foundering campaign weeks ago now seems to have a focus and a chance of success.
The liberation of Fallujah will follow, which, if successful, will set the stage for the long-awaited offensive against Mosul using many of the same tactics employed in Ramadi: cut off, surround, and methodically penetrate under the protection of persistent air cover.
The Mosul attack will not be easy and will require many more troops than used in Ramadi. To succeed, the Iraqis will have to be more flexible than they have shown in the past, as co-operation with the Kurds will be central to success.
If they succeed, it may just be the beginning of the end.Report Typo/Error
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