Once again, in less than a year, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions en masse and fled in the face of advancing Islamic State forces. The fall of the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province, leaves no doubt about the jihadi group’s capabilities: Despite U.S. attempts to paint it as a gravely weakened organization, the Islamic State remains a powerful force that is on the offensive in several key fronts across Syria and Iraq.
Ramadi is far from the only front on which the Islamic State is advancing. The group last week launched an offensive, supported by multiple suicide operations, in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor against President Bashar al-Assad regime’s holdouts in the military air base. In the central city of Palmyra, it attacked a regime base near the ancient Roman ruins. It also recently clashed with Syrian rebels and the regime in the eastern countryside of Aleppo, the provinces of Homs and Hama, and the southern city of Quneitra, near the border with Israel.
Nor are the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq confined to Ramadi.
The group hasadvanced deep into the Baiji oil refinery, the largest in the country. And it has since pushed on from Ramadi, attacking the nearby town of Khalidiya; if the group is successful, that might provide it with the territorial depth to advance on Baghdad.
The Islamic State’s recent advance did not take the world by surprise, as it did when the group captured Mosul and other areas across Iraq last year. This time, the United States said it conducted seven airstrikes in Ramadi, in an effort to prevent its fall, in the 24 hours before the city was lost. Local officials in Ramadi, meanwhile, had repeatedly warned that the city would be overrun if they did not receive urgent reinforcements. But the international and Iraqi support that arrived was simply insufficient to hold the city.
Therefore, the prevalent narrative that the Islamic State is destined to decline appears to be false. Rather than suffering from resource and manpower shortages, the group is only increasing its grip on the local populations in its strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, Syria; it is also attracting a considerable number of recruits, especially among teenagers.
As with the occupation of Mosul, the fall of Ramadi will have a ripple effect across both the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields. In Syria, Iraqi Shiite militias fighting alongside the Assad regime will feel compelled to return to defend their home country, a move that would further undercut the regime’s ability to stop recent rebel advances. There are signs this is already happening: The leader of one Damascus-based militia announced that he was returning to “wounded Iraq.”
The failure to defend Ramadi also sets the stage for increased tensions between Washington and Baghdad over the use of Shiite militias to push back the Islamic State. This is the second time this issue has arisen: In the battle to retake the city of Tikrit, the Iraqi government deployed the Hashd al-Shaabi, an umbrella organization for Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which prompted the United States to refuse to launch airstrikes in support of the offensive until the irregular units withdrew.
The United States reportedly pressured the Iraqi government not to dispatch the Hashd al-Shaabi to Ramadi, insisting that local forces along with the Iraqi Army should fight in the Sunni city. As a result, some Iraqi officials blame the Americans for the fall of the city. With Shiite militias now heading to Anbar en masse to confront the resurgent threat by the Islamic State, the stage seems set for another confrontation with Washington, which fears that the fighters will only stoke sectarian tensions in the largely Sunni province.
Ramadi’s local leaders were instrumental in the U.S.-backed Awakening Councils, which were credited with the demise of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 and which bravely held out against the Islamic State for the past year. The fall of the city, however, will significantly undercut the U.S. effort to recruit and train Sunni forces to fight the Islamic State.
“After Ramadi, [the Islamic State] will be able to present itself as the only Sunni force standing against the [Shiite] militias,” Wael Essam, a veteran journalist who embedded with the Iraqi insurgency after the war in 2003, told me. “Sunni forces allied with the government have failed to achieve the demands of the Sunni community for nearly a decade. ‘Suleimani Sunnis [a reference to Iranian spymaster Qassem Suleimani],’ as ordinary Sunnis now call them, have become tools to legitimize the government oppression against them.”
Unlike in 2006, when whole Sunni tribes rose up against al Qaeda in Iraq, there are now deep divisions over what to do about the Islamic State. With the fall of Ramadi, tribesmen loyal to the Islamic State will find themselves in a better position to pull their relatives toward their side, citing the failure of pro-government tribal leaders across Anbar.
But the fall of Ramadi will echo far further than just across Anbar.
In Washington, it should be clear that the current U.S. strategy to fight the Islamic State has failed. The White House’s focus on airstrikes in Iraq — while making little progress in training anti-Islamic State Sunni forces in either Syria or Iraq — is allowing the group immense space for planning, maneuvering, and redeployment.
Despite attempts by U.S. officials to downplay the significance of Ramadi’s fall, the development marks a dangerous new phase of the war. The Islamic State seems poised to take new areas despite American firepower and despite Iranian backing of tens of thousands of Shiite and Kurdish forces. The idea that the Islamic State is losing or declining now seems absurd.