The retake of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in Iraq, by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) — seven months after it was lost to the Islamic State (IS) — is a morale booster for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government. Iraqi forces captured the key Al Huz neighbourhood in Ramadi and raised the national flag over the government complex. On Tuesday, Mr Abadi flew into Ramadi and toured the city even as operations were underway. Reacting to the victory, he said, “2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when [IS’] presence in Iraq will be terminated”. Without doubt there is reason to be exuberant, because Ramadi is the first Sunni city that the ISF has won, and this shows that the ISF, with the right guidance, can fight the IS. The next effort will be to retake Fallujah and Mosul, but that will be far more difficult than Ramadi.
The victory in Ramadi comes at a time when the IS has been pushed on to the back foot. According to the IHS Conflict Monitor team, this year the IS lost about 14% of the land it occupied in the beginning of 2015. This is bad news for an organisation that gets more than 90% of its revenue from taxes and oil. However, with a monthly revenue of around $80 million, it still has a lot of fight left in it. The IS has shown in the past, like at Aleppo in Syria, that it can regain territory and has been lately on the defensive focusing on spoiling attacks, as seen at Sinjar and Makhoul in northern Iraq. Reports that Mr Abadi’s helicopter attracted ground fire as it landed in Ramadi point to this. Herein lies one of the many challenges for the Abadi government and the international coalition. Baghdad must not only protect the territories it recaptures but also ensure that it is able to win the trust of the people there and govern these territories in a just manner. The growing religious- and ethnic-level divide has led to the belief that the creation of new provinces is the best way forward in Iraq. This is a question Baghdad has not yet been able to address.
To date, nations fighting in the region have not been able to reach a consensus on how to tackle the IS. While the United States and Russia have, in a major breakthrough, reached a cooperation deal on airstrikes and an understanding on the ‘regime change’ in Syria, the coldness shown by Turkey, along with the growing differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, denies the coalition the sync required to defeat the IS. The victory in Ramadi will be meaningful only when all these challenges are effectively addressed.