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The Ramadi illusion

The Iraqi military's long overdue capture of Ramadi is still uncertain and will hardly be enough to defeat the Islamic State.

The Iraqi military's hasty self-congratulatory statements of victory in Ramadi are as misleading as the international chorus that echoes them, envisaging a routing-in-the-making of the Islamic State (IS). Just as the United States had made three different anticlimactic announcements of its withdrawal from a "stabilized and democratized" Iraq (in November 2008, in February 2009 and in August 2010), only to be back with additional troops in June 2014 and more troops a year later, the US-trained Iraqi military declared months ago that it had forced IS from parts of Ramadi and was on the offensive to retake it and announced that the city was about to fall in its hands.

Beyond their time-honored shortsightedness, there is something particularly arresting about the latest victory narratives: They betray a vividly impatient desire on the part of the Iraqi authorities and their regional and international allies to paint a victory — any victory — against IS at the price of far-sighted strategy, realistic assessment and lessons learned — and that, in itself, is an indication of how much genuine and innovative effort will be needed from them to decisively battle IS in the long run.

Invariably, military bombast is smokescreen for lack of operational closure, and this Anbari episode is no exception. For at least three reasons, the push into Ramadi cannot yet be regarded as decisive. First, it took the Iraqi military seven long months — since May 2015 — to make progress into the central neighborhoods of the city. Since the past summer, with the help of the US Air Force, Baghdad has been repeatedly unable to dislodge IS militants. A state military force deploying the latest weapons, operationally supported by the United States with air cover and, reportedly, ground troops, accompanied by Iran’s top military commanders, US-armed tribesmen and led by vengeful sectarian militias has been haphazardly fighting for more than half a year for a mid-size city 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Baghdad that it should not have lost in the first place and which was seized as an afterthought by a nonstate armed group that had already won the prize in Mosul.

Second, since Ramadi has been declared "liberated," IS has stepped up its urban guerrilla tactics with deadly results for the elite Iraqi troops. Observer tribesmen claim that the group still controls a third of the city, and there are reports of neighborhoods with the IS flag flying within a hundred meters of the national troops. In the midst of a devastated city, we are at best looking at a prolonged tit-for-tat phase of factional advance-and-retreat cycles previously witnessed elsewhere, notably in Fallujah. In truth, the price paid by the Iraqi military and the US forces in Ramadi is already too high. The strategy they worked on for the past months is now known to IS, which wasted no time in switching in situ to suicide-attack mode and withdrew its fighters to "stretch the enemy," keeping them in expectation of a possible counterattack. There are already indications of the Iraqi authorities overplaying their hand with statements that IS will be defeated in 2016 and Mosul is next.

Finally, and most revealingly, Ramadi is arguably not that important for IS. The group will only be dealt a blow in Iraq when the city of Mosul is brought back under the control of the central government. Until then, all engagements are de facto sideshows. IS has also consistently and smartly presented every battle and every operation as if it were the most crucial one to its future. Even when the stakes were minimal (Kobani, Sinjar), it behaved as if the outcome would be decisive. Such constant maximization of effort has paid off in both Iraq and Syria as the front-line IS troops are visibly engaged to fight for every inch of territory (the near-daily videos indicate as much), whereas Iraqi soldiers have often fled the battle (notably in Mosul in June 2014 and in Ramadi in May 2015), as have Syrian ones, regularly surrendering outposts in urban and desert settings. On Dec. 30, IS released a 20-minute video with GoPro visuals and aerial drone footage of its fighters assaulting Iraqi troops in Ramadi.

Ultimately, what has been missing in the debate on Ramadi is the larger picture of what IS is doing and what its enemies are displaying in terms of performance and outlook. And here too, three key factual dimensions tell the tale: Over the past years, the Iraqi military has been consistently divided and unable to hold ground or remain a steady administrative force; IS has stayed ahead of the game for the past two years since it started its two-pronged Levantine campaign in early 2014 and has not suffered a significant setback since — Ramadi December 2015 included; and, time and again, battles for secondary cities (yesterday Kobani, today Ramadi, tomorrow Fallujah) are presented as game-changers when the second biggest city in Iraq (Mosul) has been in the hands of IS since June 2014, as has, for that matter, one of the biggest cities in Syria (Raqqa). At best, the second battle of Ramadi is a further illustration of the hybrid new wars where attrition, siege, drones, air cover, disinformation, infantry, car bombings and counterterrorism blend to generate temporary advances in the face of fluid situations. What Iraq and Afghanistan taught us is that this game of hybridity and flux is best played by the mutating actors, which second-generation transnational armed groups are becoming.

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