The summer just got bloodier in Iraq. In a military offensive that put to shame the joint forces of the Iraqi government, the US-led coalition and sectarian militias, ISIS regained control over Ramadi, in the predominantly Sunni Anbar Province. The long-drawn battle ended on May 17 with ISIS seizing the Government Complex and the Anbar Operations Command. The fall of Ramadi undermines the narrative that joint forces were pushing ISIS to the precipice. It also cast doubts on claims that ISIS is on the back foot after its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was incapacitated after a US air strike.
The developments pose serious questions about the US’ approach in Iraq. Offering aerial support and ‘advisors’ is a piecemeal approach to a complex problem. Baghdad and Washington need to focus on integrating Iraq, which has been sharply divided on sectarian lines. And the coalition must be willing to extend support to Shia militia groups fighting ISIS while the Iraqi government should think about ways to arm Sunni fighters in Falluja and elsewhere who are ready to take on ISIS. The US and its 20-member coalition of nations cannot possibly pull out of Iraq but President Barack Obama will have to rethink his strategy. The political climate in Washington prevents him from putting boots on the ground but many hope that that is a risk he will take. Another question that needs to be addressed is: What’s the strategy against ISIS in Syria? The West might have an enemy in President Bashar al-Assad but as long as ISIS has a free run in Syria it will be impossible to keep it out of Iraq.
With Ramadi in its control ISIS is in a commanding position in western Iraq. It severs Baghdad’s supply lines to the west and poses serious threat to airbases in Anbar. ISIS, contrary to expectations, is gaining ground: It’s extending its influence to other countries, like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen; many terrorist groups are pledging allegiance to it, and the number of ISIS-inspired attacks in the West are rising. In such a scenario retaking Mosul from ISIS —a vital strategic milestone to wrest back the initiative—is unlikely to happen this year. A long summer in the trenches looms.