Islamic State’s advance at Ramadi raises new questions about anti-ISIS strategy

The Islamic State’s capture Friday of the Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi provides fresh evidence of the Iraqi army’s weakness, the terrorist movement’s resilience and the shortcomings of the Obama administration’s strategy for defeating the extremists, experts said.

As a result, President Barack Obama could come under pressure to step up U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria unless Iraqi security forces swiftly retake Ramadi and prevent the fall of other cities in what appears to be a major Islamic State drive to overrun Anbar, Iraq’s largest province and the heartland of its Sunni Muslim minority.

“If this offensive . . . isn’t stopped quickly, it certainly raises major, major questions about U.S. strategy,” said Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. “If the whole of Anbar goes, I think it’s hard to see how ISIS is defeated in the short term, and that raises questions about whether the U.S. has to commit more.”

Under Obama’s strategy, a U.S.-led international military coalition has been staging airstrikes and training and advising Iraqi forces with the aim of halting and then reversing the territorial conquests the Islamic State has made since June 2014, when the insurgents charged into northern Iraq from civil war-ravaged Syria and rolled to the outskirts of Baghdad.

Obama, however, won’t deploy U.S. combat forces to bolster the Iraqi army, which is being rebuilt after all but disintegrating last year in the face of the Islamic State onslaught.

Moreover, the U.S. lacks an effective strategy for dealing with the Islamic State’s bases in Syria – beyond a training program for opposition fighters that has only just begun – where the extremist movement is now pursuing two offensives against the forces of President Bashar Assad.

The past months have seen the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, suffer some setbacks at the hands of Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish fighters, Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias and Iraqi security forces and tribal fighters, most recently with the loss in April of Tikrit, the hometown of the late Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein.

The reversals prompted some senior U.S. officials and military commanders to proclaim progress in the campaign to crush the extremists, who they claim have suffered thousands of casualties and lost large amounts of military hardware in some 6,000 U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria over the past nine months.

Administration and U.S. military officials on Friday sought to maintain that line, insisting that the Islamic State hadn’t overrun all of Ramadi, an industrial city of 900,000, and would be driven back from the areas they had seized.

“We've said before that there will be good days and bad days in Iraq. ISIL. . . is trying to make today a bad day in Ramadi,” said State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke. “We are confident . . . that Iraqi forces with support from the coalition will continue to push back ISIL where they've tried to gain advantages on the ground.”

The Islamic State made only “temporary gains in the east and south of the city,” said Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, the deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve.

“We firmly believe Daash is on the defensive throughout Iraq,” he said in a briefing for Pentagon reporters, using a derogatory Arabic expression for the Islamic State.

That version, however, seemed to be undercut by the announcement late Friday that the United States was expediting the delivery of shoulder-fired rockets to counter the kinds of car bombs that the Islamic State had deployed so effectively in their assault at Ramadi. The announcement came after Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi.

Experts who closely follow developments in Iraq and Syria said the fall of Ramadi showed that the Iraqi army still lacks an ability to withstand concerted Islamic State operations on its own.

“There is no way you can look at the last week and say everything is going brilliantly,” said Daniel Byman, a senior fellow with the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “Politically there is going to be pressure to say things aren’t going well and we need to do more. So the political pressure will be there.”

Chris Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, said that the U.S.-led coalition’s air war has been much less significant than the U.S. military acknowledges. The Iraqi army’s weakness is one major reason.

“The air campaign has been very effective in hitting targets but completely ineffective in affecting the course of the battle,” he said. “Air power without significant ground forces is at best irrelevant and at worst counter-productive.”

Katzman said the Islamic State’s ability to maintain significant forces in Anbar also underscores that it still commands support among some of the province’s Sunni tribes.

Other experts pointed out that the extremists still are able to muster and move large numbers of fighters, many of them across the border from Syria, despite the U.S.-led air campaign.

Should the Islamic State succeed in consolidating its grip on Ramadi and capture other Anbar towns against which its forces have been advancing, pressure could build on Obama to rethink his strategy for defeating the extremists, experts said.

But with the public adamantly opposed to sending combat troops back to Iraq, Obama’s options will likely be limited to stepping up the air campaign and the arming and training of Iraqi forces, experts said.

Fayad Itani, an expert with the Atlantic Council, said that Obama also may have to reconsider his rejection of cooperating with the Iranian-backed Shiite militias as they remain far more capable than the Iraqi army.

“It won’t be a strategic shift,” Itani said. “Obama’s options will be escalating airstrikes, augmenting an indirect support role with the Iraqi government and having to revisit our tolerance of the Iranian and Shiite militia roles.”