Brutal truths about ISIL victories

Retreat in Ramadi should trigger a review of coalition’s ISIL strategy.

Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi gather at the Bzebiz bridge after spending the night walking towards Baghdad [AP]
Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi gather at the Bzebiz bridge after spending the night walking towards Baghdad [AP]

As with many things in the Iraq conflict different people can interpret the fall of Ramadi in different ways. The US chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s claim that Ramadi was “not symbolic in any way” could be construed as reasonable. Certainly Ramadi has always been a city where the insurgency’s influence has ebbed and flowed, ever since the US-led invasion in 2003. 

But it is also reasonable to question the effectiveness of the coalition against ISIL, particularly the willingness of Iraq’s army to fight for its nation’s security. The overall strategy of fighting ISIL using Western-led air power and Iraqi-only land forces is another issue worthy of critical review. 

Over a year on from the blitzkrieg advance of ISIL in Iraq it seems that whatever reorganisation, training and re-equipment that the army was given, it has failed to redress its previous humiliating defeat.

Who is accountable for the fall of Ramadi?

The primary cause of its defeat a year ago was the failure of the generals to stand and fight. Despite the Iraqi prime minister’s pleas to stand and fight now, it seems that soldiers are continuing to desert their positions. 

Face-saving myths

A great many face-saving myths have been created about ISIL having superior weapons and training. These are largely baseless. ISIL lacks the armour, mobility, intelligence support and air power that the Iraqi army has at its disposal.

The superiority of ISIL is in its leadership and the motivation of its foot soldiers. That is a hard pill to swallow for not just the Iraqi government but also for the US. It was the US-led war for regime change in Iraq and its considerable investment in blood and treasure to establish a new form of government that is now proving to be an embarrassing failure. 

These failures translate into successes for ISIL, which in turn feeds off one victory to produce another. ISIL’s success threatens not just the Iraqis and Syrians but also the rest of the world. It has caused one of the largest displacement of people in history, it has motivated one of the widest recruitment of foreign fighters ever recorded and its stated ambition to overthrow a large swath of the Middle East, Africa, Asia and even parts of Europe is unprecedented for a non-state actor.

Yet regional and world powers seem to be treating ISIL as a low priority issue, even embarking on new political landscape gardening projects in Libya and Yemen. 

The fact that US President Barack Obama held a summit with Middle East leaders to discuss a largely sectarian war in Yemen when no such meeting took place to confront ISIL is highly revealing. A broad coalition from the Muslim world has been assembled by Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthi minority in Yemen. Yet, the Saudi government has shown relatively less concern about ISIL.

In the face of this strangely fragmented and half-hearted opposition, it is no wonder that ISIL is able to continue to murder men, women and children…


Half-hearted opposition

In the face of this strangely fragmented and half-hearted opposition, it is no wonder that ISIL is able to continue to murder men, women and children particularly from Christian, Yazidi and other minorities. They continue to destroy world heritage sites, some being the only record of particular ancient civilisations.

There are at least 11 references in the Quran telling people to go about the earth to learn what became of previous civilisations. Yet the newfound self confidence and leadership of the Saudi regime has been relatively silent over this latest affront to its religion. 

The fight against ISIL is in many ways a fight between the idea of a nation state and the idea of a revolutionary ideological empire. Lessons learned about the intrinsic strengths of revolutionary insurgencies in comparison with the strengths of conventional armies are not being applied.

Insurgencies are known to be able to adapt over time to conventional warfare tactics used against them. Conventional forces on the other hand have the advantage of reacting swiftly to threats and being able to rapidly manoeuvre to apply force at a place and time of their choosing. 

The recent decision of the Iraqi government to deploy Shia militias to Ramadi underlines the poverty of strategy and of the concept of an Iraqi state. It is the job of armies to protect the state by owing loyalty to it alone. Militias are primarily loyal to their own leaders. Any success in Ramadi by these militias will come at the price of further weakening the government and adding to the already dangerous sectarian divide in the nation.

Ponderous strategy

Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders demand Abbadi send forces to protect their city and regain Ramadi [AP]
Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders demand Abbadi send forces to protect their city and regain Ramadi [AP]

One of the reasons that ISIL continues to thrive is that the coalition has adopted a ponderous strategy, unable to capitalise swiftly on its advantages of air power and manoeuvres.

All the while, ISIL is learning to adapt to the coalition’s strategy by, for example, avoiding concentrations of force to minimise targets for the coalition. It, rather than the coalition, is able to choose when and where it strikes. 

ISIL’s continued successes in Ramadi and elsewhere should prompt regional powers and the US to reappraise their approach and strategy. A more energetic strategy which uses the coalition’s air strike capability in support of the Iraqi army may be the only way of tipping the balance against ISIL.

But first, if ISIL is to be beaten, then it must be seen and prioritised for what it is: The greatest current regional and global threat. Otherwise, there are likely to be further setbacks and shocks that will be felt well beyond Iraq and Syria.

Afzal Ashraf is a consultant fellow at Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and served in the UK armed forces. He was involved in developing a counterinsurgency strategy and in the policing and the justice sectors in Iraq.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.