The fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi on Sunday, and of the Syrian city of Palmyra on Wednesday, is a big gain for the Islamic State, but not an utter disaster, as many observers fear.
Rather than inducing panic in Western capitals, it should lead to a realistic assessment of the Islamic State’s strengths and weaknesses. One setback in a long war must not trigger hasty strategic shifts that lead to foreign countries’ becoming mired in Iraq once more.
Palmyra has economic and cultural significance, as it sits among gas fields and is home to renowned ruins. But Ramadi, in western Iraq, is of far greater military and strategic consequence.
The attack on Ramadi was a sign of desperation, not strength. It took 16 months of continual clashes with tenacious Iraqi security forces and loyal Sunni tribes before the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, could take Ramadi. Before it fell, the Islamic State already controlled half of the city. Its battlefield rivals were exhausted, and it wanted to give its adherents a psychological boost. Ramadi was a ripe target.
But the Islamic State is not on an unstoppable march. In Iraq, and to some extent Syria, it remains on the defensive. In April, the Islamic State’s defenses in large swaths of Salahuddin Province and the provincial capital, Tikrit, collapsed. In the north, Iraqi Kurds have contained the Islamic State. In Syria, Kurds supported by Iraqi pesh merga forces and by American airstrikes decisively defeated the group in the town of Kobani. Unlike the disastrous fall of Mosul in June 2014, the conquest of Ramadi hasn’t led to a collapse of Iraqi military units.
There is even a silver lining in the fall of Ramadi. Before last week, many Iraqi leaders seemed to have forgotten that the Islamic State was still a threat and failed to give credit to those doing the most to resist it. The former prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki — whose own inept security policies helped create the Islamic State — railed against Iraqi Kurdish aspirations for independence, despite the Kurds’ valiant efforts to neutralize the Islamic State in northern Iraq. The governor of Nineveh Province, Atheel al-Nujaifi, was in Washington early this month advocating an autonomous Sunni region even while his capital, Mosul, was in the Islamic State’s clutches. During my trip to Iraq in March, other elites spoke to me as though the Islamic State had already been destroyed. Ramadi has ended their complacency.
But the fall of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, does not mean that Anbar is lost. The Iraqi government still controls vital military infrastructure there, including two air bases, which must be defended.
Anbar was the birthplace of the Sunni awakening movement during the American presence in Iraq. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, initiated an effort in early April to arm the Iraqi Sunni tribes in Anbar so that they could fight the Islamic State. He can now make a strong case that arming the tribes is a crucial priority; seizing this opportunity would also help him regain political strength. In the long term, an effective tribal force in Anbar could allow Mr. Abadi to rely less on the Shiite armed groups.
America should help Mr. Abadi mobilize the Sunni tribes by mediating between them and the Iraqi government, to overcome mutual distrust. Washington must continue to bolster Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces while providing air support, improved intelligence, reconnaissance, weapons and training. The United States should also seek to limit any fallout from the operations of Iranian-backed Shiite armed groups in Anbar. Local authorities voted to allow for the deployment of these groups, but that does not guarantee success. Their cooperation with the Sunni tribes will be decisive in expelling the Islamic State from Ramadi.
The propaganda war could be even more important. The Islamic State is now using Ramadi to re-energize its supporters by broadcasting images of blitzkrieg. It has published photos of seized Iraqi equipment and ammunition and of public executions, and images of its black flags over government buildings have been widely shared. For the Islamic State, social media is as effective a weapon as advanced military technology. The United States should continue to target the group’s social media propaganda and its effort to rebuild the cracked aura of invincibility.
Thankfully, the Obama administration seems to recognize that beating the Islamic State on the ground is an Iraqi responsibility. There is enough manpower in Iraq. America and its allies must not overreact to the setback in Ramadi; they should limit their engagement to aerial support and military advisers.
Ramadi is a reminder that this is a long-term battle, but it is ultimately for the Iraqis to win. American troops should not put their lives on the line once again to give Iraq another chance.
Ahmed Ali is a visiting senior fellow and director of the Iraq Security and Humanitarian Monitor at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center in Washington.