Iraqi troops pushed into the center of ISIS-held Ramadi Wednesday, continuing a 72-hour surge designed to regain the central Iraq city after losing control of it in May, when forces of the Islamic State terrorist group stole it from the country’s beleaguered military. Despite early signs that Ramadi could be retaken, questions linger over whether Iraqi security forces can keep it for good.
Three factors are working against the Iraqis: First, the U.S. has maintained a zero-civilian-casualty policy that has prevented U.S. airstrikes in the built-up areas of Ramadi. Secondly, potential Iraqi recruits that would otherwise defend the city are being dissuaded by anti-American groups in the region. Lastly, an Iraqi military force inside the city would confront a local population traumatized by an ISIS campaign of terror, making it more difficult for the Iraqi army to win trust and establish a stronghold.
Given Ramadi’s close proximity to Baghdad, a mere one hour and 40 minutes by car, retaking the city from ISIS would represent a significant strategic victory and relieve Baghdad's western defenses. A victory in Ramadi would not only mark a symbolic change in fortune for the Iraqi military, it would establish a critical launching point to take the neighboring city of Fallujah to the east.
“There’s nothing to say that Ramadi is not going to fall again if the Iraqi forces take it as expected,” said Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “But it really depends if U.S. airpower will be more focused on defending Ramadi, if the restrictions that prevented U.S. airstrikes in the past have been lifted and they can work out a way to target the terrorists.”
The Iraqi and U.S. governments' zero-civilian-casualty policy means that three-quarters of U.S. aircraft return to bases still fully loaded with bombs and missiles. The new rules dictate that pilots can not fire if there is no clear opportunity to hit relevant targets without killing civilians, according to a Pentagon report from mid-November. That policy, paired with U.S. reluctance to commit ground combat troops to the region, gives ISIS an edge and the ability to build up significant forces and defensive infrastructure in a number of Iraqi cities and towns around the country.
But recent reports suggest a shift in tactical posture by the U.S. that could see significant airstrikes sometime Wednesday. The U.S. Air Force dropped leaflets over the war-torn city this week, notifying the civilian population that it had 72 hours to vacate.
“It appears that they are preparing for some kind of airstrike on the city, which makes a lot of sense if they want to dislodge ISIS, but until the city is cleared of civilians it might not be possible,” Phillips said.
Knowing that they could be subject to a bombardment, the several hundred ISIS fighters scattered on the outskirts of the city and roughly 300 hundred inside have little reason to allow civilians to leave. “ISIS are preventing the people of Ramadi from leaving, and using them as human shields,” a security official told the New York Times Tuesday.
— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) December 23, 2015
Iraqi troops relied on a few dozen U.S airstrikes on the outskirts of the city but largely used ground combat units to make it inside. “In the last 24 hours, U.S. airpower has delivered 33 munitions and direct support of offensive operations in Ramadi,” Col. Steve Warren, the U.S. Defense Department's Baghdad spokesman, said Tuesday. “We’re encouraged by this tactical development, as it’s a continuation of the progress we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks.”
Warren added that there is still a long way to go before Ramadi will be clear of ISIS, with some tough fighting ahead for the Iraqi security forces in its dense urban terrain.
The situation is significantly different from the battle in May, when roughly 6,000 Iraqi troops fled the city in the face of an ISIS onslaught. A mixture of poor equipment, low morale and a breakdown in the supply chain were enough to persuade troops to abandon the city, according to a U.S. defense official speaking at the time.
If Iraqi troops do take the city, according to Warren, who said that the fall of Ramadi is “inevitable,” there will have to be a material change in the Iraqi army’s setup there, Phillips said.
That said, the U.S. has struggled to recruit eligible Iraqi soldiers that are both enthusiastic to serve in an exposed and risky military and be impervious to the outside factors that have so far diminished U.S. attempts at turning the Iraqi military into an effective fighting force.
“I think the problem behind the scenes in the training pipeline is that the Iranians don’t want to see any U.S. influence or U.S. training, and they are pressuring pro-Iranian elements inside Iraq to sabotage it by dissuading these young and impressionable recruits,” Phillips said. “And it’s working because a lot of the Iraqi trainees are not showing, and that’s a perennial problem.”
ISIL fighters ordered to dress as ISF and commit atrocities before fleeing Fallujah. pic.twitter.com/CsXQEyMn6Z
— COL Steve Warren (@OIRSpox) December 22, 2015
The potential problems the Iraqi military faces once it enters Ramadi were outlined in an intercepted ISIS command order that gave instructions on what to do before forces vacated the neighboring city of Fallujah, some 70 km away. Along with instructions to attach explosives to homes and mosques, the order told ISIS fighters to dress as either Iraqi Security Forces or as members of the Popular Mobilization Force, which is a government-sanctioned paramilitary group, then begin killing civilians while filming it.
According to the order, this is designed to create ill will between the town’s population and the Iraqi forces, adding another layer complication for Iraqi forces to hold on to cities they retake from ISIS. It's likely that a similar order was issued in Ramadi by ISIS commanders.
“This kind of indiscriminate violence is usually counterproductive and tends to backfire, and that’s true regardless of the international actor we’re dealing with,” said Dr. Max Abrahms, an expert on terrorism at Northeastern University and at the Council of Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. “The United States will try to play up how terrorists attack the population, and the terrorists will do the exact opposite by trying to hide among the civilian population in order to elicit atrocities, which we are seeing now. So this is just another example of how indiscriminate violence can be used to try and alter a conflict and unsettle the population, which will make it much harder for the Iraqi army to gain civil control."