Administration in Fantasyland on impact of the fall of Ramadi

The dire consequences of the fall of Ramadi have apparently escaped the notice of the Obama administration, as they continue to play down the impact of the loss on their strategy and on the security of Iraq.

The Hill:

The White House on Monday acknowledged the seizure represents a “setback” but signaled it is unlikely to alter its approach to combatting ISIS, which relies on U.S.-led airstrikes and training Iraqi security forces to fight the ground war. 

Pro-government troops fled Ramadi as ISIS fighters flooded the city, raising doubts about their ability to sustain gains as they try to retake territory.

“There are two clocks ticking here: We know the tide isn’t necessarily going to turn until the Iraqi forces get their act together and regain ground against ISIS,” said Janine Davidson, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They are digging themselves out of a very big hole. While we wait for progress on that front, ISIS continues to take ground.”

Republican national security hawks have used the fall of Ramadi to pressure the White House to step up its response to the group. Some, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have advocated for more U.S. troops on the ground.

The White House wants to avoid being drawn into another war in Iraq, however, and even some GOP critics are wary of expanding the use of U.S. ground troops.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a 2016 presidential candidate, said in February that he wouldn’t put American boots on the ground and would instead focus on arming and training Kurdish peshmerga fighters. 

The Obama administration has sought to downplay the significance of ISIS gains in Ramadi, saying that the battle is far from over. 

“There is no denying that this is indeed a setback,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters Monday aboard Air Force One. “But there is also no denying we will help the Iraqis take back Ramadi.”

The Pentagon said there have been 65 airstrikes in and around Ramadi over the past month. That includes eight in the past 24 hours, according to Schultz, who said the strikes will continue until Ramadi is retaken. 

“Iraqi forces have the capacity to ultimately take Ramadi with coalition support,” he said.

That last may be the biggest delusion of all.

The Iraqi army may have outnumbered the attackers 2-1 but fled in panic nevertheless when the ISIS offensive picked up steam.  They left behind thousands of small arms and artillery for ISIS to take.

To even hint that the Iraqi army is ready to retake Ramadi in the near future is ridiculous, as this analysis in the Telegraph points out:

The city’s fall highlighted the failure and weakness of the Iraqi military. While it is no secret that the army struggles to recruit into its ranks, particularly amongst the Sunnis, its poor organisation and coordination became glaringly apparent.

The defeat was humiliating, as Iraqi military officials abandoned their posts and equipment in their hasty retreat – equipment that Isil dutifully captured.

The city’s symbolism is not limited to Iraq. Ramadi is important to Washington, which fought some of its costliest battles to recapture both Ramadi and Fallujah during the US occupation of Iraq. It also displayed the weakness of the coalition’s ability to fight ISIS. The group used a sandstorm as cover to delay airstrikes and gain an uninterrupted head start on their offensive.

But perhaps most significant is the management of the upcoming counter-offensive to liberate the city.

The Sunni tribes are exhausted. The city cannot be liberated without addressing Sunni concerns about not receiving enough support. But the Iraqi army cannot do it alone.

The coalition too, will face setbacks: Ramadi is a large city, so successful airstrikes will not be possible without also resulting in many causalities. A significant ground campaign is also needed.

As a result, Prime Minister Abadi called on Iraq’s Shia militias to assist in the fight to retake Ramadi. But ordering Shia militias into a Sunni-dominated region runs the risk sparking sectarian hostilities.

Sheikh Mohammed Saleh al-Bahari, a Sunni tribal leader said: “We are not welcoming Hashd [Shia paramilitary units] in our city. We won’t fight them if they enter, but we are emotionally against them. They are an ethnic militia who will treat us badly”.

The Sunni-Shia military cooperation will be key to retaking the city.

The Shia militias are universally hated and mistrusted by Sunnis following several massacres by the militias elsewhere in Iraq.  It is also unclear just who controls them.  The prime minister may order them to Anbar, but the militias will be under the control of Iranian officers of the Revolutionary Guards.  Any cooperation with Sunnis will be at arm's length, as it was when the militias took Tikrit earlier this year.

The Obama "strategy" to fight ISIS is first and foremost to keep the U.S. out of the war as much as possible, and second, to do the absolute minimum required in order to blunt criticism that he isn't doing anything.  In short, it has little to do with seeking a military victory (obviously) and more to do with political calculation.