The fall of Ramadi to ISIL was an alarming setback. But it exposed an underlying reality that was being ignored, and seems to have prompted a badly needed new atmosphere of introspection, and greater public frankness, in the Obama administration.
It has focused attention on the shortcomings of the strategy being pursued by the anti-ISIL coalition in both Iraq and Syria, and the need for a serious expansion and rethinking of the policy.
And it reminded all observers that the current approach – both in terms of how the campaign is being waged and the disturbing gap between the goals that have been set and the resources being allocated to trying to achieve them – is poised precariously between a policy that seeks to severely damage and marginalise (“destroy”) ISIL versus one that, in effect, seeks to contain it.
The fall of Ramadi once again demonstrates the profound weakness of the Iraqi armed forces, at least when operating against ISIL and in Sunni-majority areas of the country.
As on several other key occasions in the past, particularly during the fall of Mosul, Iraqi troops simply scattered. It raises the question not merely of the martial capability of these forces, but also of their willingness to fight against ferocious and determined opposition and retain control of areas of the country with which they may not fully identify.
ISIL again demonstrated that its strategy of intensively softening up a targeted area with major suicide bomb attacks before moving in to take advantage of the chaos with lightning speed is disturbingly effective.
The Iraqi military does not appear to have developed any tactical response to this method of attack. The coalition approach relyies on ground forces that frequently are simply not up to the task of combating ISIL.
All too often, sectarian Shiite militias, many of which have been implicated in serious massacres and other abuses, have taken the lead in government efforts to retake ISIL-controlled territory. This, of course, plays directly into the hands of the terrorists, allowing them to pose as the protectors of local Sunni communities, and casting the anti-ISIL campaign as, in effect, an extension of Iran in Iraq, and Bashar Al Assad in Syria.
ISIL has a well-earned reputation for effective messaging. But as long as images of Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani overseeing fighters in the field arrayed against ISIL emerge from every battleground, its most potent propaganda is being provided by others, gratis. Unless and until Sunni fighters, under whatever rubric, begin taking the lead in the battle against ISIL in Iraq, sustained success is unlikely.
Finally, the loss of Ramadi yet again underscores another obvious, and eventually potentially fatal, flaw in the coalition approach, which is not having an integrated strategy in both Iraq and Syria. Until now, attacks against ISIL in Syria have been seen as a kind of appendage of the main campaign, which is centred on Iraq.
The reasons why the coalition has focused almost entirely on Iraq, and viewed its actions in Syria as simply supportive of the Iraqi campaign, are far less important than the fact that this distinction virtually ensures the failure of the effort.
ISIL cannot be combated piecemeal, and only where it is politically convenient. Either the effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group is a thoroughgoing and serious one, or the real mission will be simply to drive it out of Iraq. This can only be described as a policy of containment, far different from the stated goals of the operation.
Much of this has been obvious for a long time, but was being papered over by increasingly anodyne, vague and even misleading official US government statements about the campaign in recent months.
However, a May 20 State Department background briefing was refreshingly frank and informative, and suggests that the setback in Ramadi may have shaken up at least parts of the Obama administration and prompted a greater willingness to publicly assess the difficulties and shortcomings of the campaign.
The unnamed senior State Department official identifies ISIL as “a formidable, enormous threat,” and says that it will take at least three years merely to “degrade” the group, let alone “destroy” it. The official admits the US government doesn’t know how many fighters ISIL has overall, or how many of them were deployed in overrunning Ramadi. And the official also admits, “you would have to be delusional not to take something like this [turn of events] and say, ‘What went wrong?’”
But, as military and security expert Anthony Cordesman has correctly noted, the coalition, and particularly the United States, have now reached a point in the struggle against ISIL “where more action is needed than simply addressing one defeat with a new degree of honesty and depth”.
The US and its partners are either going to have to start committing the kind of resources, and taking the kind of risks, necessary to inflict serious and sustained damage on ISIL, or publicly admit that the real policy is a containment strategy that accepts ISIL as a part of the Middle Eastern political landscape into the foreseeable future.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Gulf Arab States Institute in Washington
On Twitter: @ibishblog