Once Russia turned up the heat on “the terrorists” in Syria, the US was suddenly at pains to explain why Washington’s strategy for dealing with militants differs so markedly from the Russian approach.
The US has resorted to 15 months of spotty airstrikes “backed” by a hodgepodge of loosely organized ground troops that in many cases are tasked with battling fighters the US also trained and equipped at one time or another. The results of this “strategy” have been a disaster. ISIS remains and the latest group of US “trained and equipped” troops was systematically dismantled and embarrassed by al-Qaeda, the latest in a string of boondoggles that reached a humiliating crescendo in the summer of 2014 when everyone involved suddenly realized that allowing Sunni extremists to form “a Salafist principality” (as predicted by The Pentagon in 2012) was a very, very bad idea.
The Russian strategy is far simpler and goes something like this: if you are an anti-Assad element operating in Syria, you’re a terrorist or at the very least you have the potential to become one and so we’re going to bomb you and instead of resorting to shaky alliances with unreliable rebel groups for ground cover, we’ll just partner with Iran and Hezbollah.
While it’s true that Russia hasn’t rolled up ISIS, al-Nusra, and the FSA as quickly as Moscow predicted, The Kremlin has been more effective than the White House at combatting extremists and now, Baghdad and Kabul are reconsidering whether they want to be aligned with the US if it means the Russians can’t participate in routing militants in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In order to convince America’s “partners” in Iraq that the US can still effectively fight terror, US SpecOps partnered with the Peshmerga on an ISIS prison raid in late October and on a successful offensive to retake Sinjar (the northern Iraqi town where ISIS terrorized the Yazidi minority). Next on the agenda: Ramadi.
ISIS overran Ramadi in May and as WSJ notes, “the Iraqi army’s attempt to retake the city is widely seen as a test of preparedness for a planned future offensive in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the most populous under the group’s control.”
"It's the biggest city in Iraq's largest province and the heartland of the Sunni community of Iraq. It's a big trading post for the country as well, with roads leading into Jordan and Syria,” Al Jazeera's Imran Khan notes.
Hampering the offensive is a series of IEDs set up to keep enemies from entering and, allegedly, to keep citizens from leaving. Here’s more:
Ramadi, about 60 miles west of the capital of Baghdad, is surrounded by farmland that is also now heavily fortified with IEDs.
In recent months, Islamic State laid a new layer of IEDs alongside the ones it placed after it took the city last spring, leaving Iraqi security forces with even more deadly explosives to defuse than in previous battles with the extremist group.
“For sure, there will be new ways in Ramadi. Today they’re using cellphone IEDs. By the time we figure out how to stop that, they’ll have the next thing. They use tricks. Always they are a step ahead of you, no matter how smart you are,” Ammar Sadoun,an Explosive Ordnance Division engineer advising on operations in the city told WSJ earlier this month.
On Tuesday, the Iraqi army retook a strategic operations center and is now in a position to drive ISIS from the city. Here’s a look at the situation on the ground:
Apparently, ISIS fighters attempted to launch a counteroffensive on Wednesday which nearly succeeded, before US airstrikes drove back the advance.
“The center of Ramadi is under our control,” Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the Iraqi army Joint Operations Command, proclaimed.
The interesting thing about the battle for Ramadi is that the Iraqi army resorted to Sunni tribal fighters for extra support rather than the Iran-backed Shiite militias that have proven time and again to be the most effective fighters when it comes to pushing back ISIS. Of course Islamic State subscribes to puritanical, orthodox Sunni Islam. Consider that, and see if you can surmise why the Ramadi strategy is dangerous based on the following account, again from WSJ:
Ramadi and surrounding Anbar province are dominated by Iraq’s Sunni minority and participation of Shiite militias in the battle would have risked stoking sectarian tensions.
The offensive has the largest participation of Sunni tribal fighters to date and is a chance for the recently-formed militias to show they are capable of defending territory won back by the army. The Sunni volunteers have only rudimentary training and arms. But their participation has symbolic value, meant to give Sunni-majority areas such as Anbar province confidence that they won't be abused by the Shiite-dominated army and central government.
The Sunni volunteers didn’t fight alongside the Iraqi forces in this week’s advance, but followed behind the troops to hold territory as it was taken. On Wednesday, some Sunni militia members stood guard at checkpoints along the road into Ramadi that had been freed by the army.
Now what do you imagine might happen when Sunni fighters who distrust the Shiite Iraqi regulars and who know that politicians in Baghdad are loyal to Shiite Iran are left to hold contested territory with “rudimentary training and arms”? It certainly seems possible that they will simply walk away in the face of an ISIS advance, especially if Islamic State offers to spare them due to ideological affinity.
So that’s the situation in Ramadi and according to Ash Carter - who briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee on America’s ISIS “strategy” on Wednesday - the US is prepared to send in the Apaches to assist in securing the city.
"The United States is prepared to assist the Iraqi Army with additional unique capabilities to help them finish the job, including attack helicopters and accompanying advisers, if circumstances dictate and if requested by Prime Minister Abadi," he said.
Well make no mistake, “circumstances” do indeed “dictate,” because as outlined above, Iraq decided to leave it to untrained, under-equipped Sunni tribesmen to hold captured territory and opted to exclude the fearsome Shiite militias who might have actually been able to secure contested ground. The problem for Carter is that Abadi has already rejected the idea of US attack helicopters and just last week said Baghdad does not want an increased US troop presence.
Asked by the Senate to clarify the role of The Pentagon's proposed SpecOps force, Carter said only this: "This is a no-kidding force that will be doing important things,"
"The President has not decided to approve the use of attack helicopters in an operation like this," White House Press Secreatry John Earnest added on Wednesday.
So ultimately, there's no strategy. The Pentagon apparently wants to send in troops and helicopters but Obama hasn't approved the latter and Abadi doesn't want either. Meanwhile, the sectarian divide is preventing the Iraqis from stationing effective forces in captured territory and no one knows what the Turks and the Peshmerga are up to in Bashiqa. Finally, amid the confusion, at least some Iraqi politicians want the US gone altogether in order to pave the way for deeper cooperation with the Russians.
The bottom line is that it now looks like that the US, for whatever reason, is hell bent on getting more troops and more equipment to Iraq - with or without Baghdad's consent. Washington has a tendency to view Iraq as America's property and it seems that the more Baghdad pushes back and the closer Iraqi lawmakers get to leaning Russian, the closer the US gets to getting more deeply involved.