How can they tell? Six thousand Iraqi soldiers fled Ramadi in the face of a horde of 150 ISIS marauders, leaving all their weapons behind as they turned tail and ran, but Barack Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice calls that just a sign of “a long slog.” Rice also says that victory won’t be “a linear progression”:
The fall of the strategic Iraqi town of Ramadi to the Islamic State is a significant setback that exposes continued weaknesses in Iraq’s security forces and opens a larger role for Shiite militias, White House national security adviser Susan Rice says. It has underscored the “difficult and extended operation” that remains against the jihadist group.
“This is going to be a long slog,” she said.
In an interview with Capital Download, Rice described Abu Sayyaf, killed by U.S. special operations forces in a daring raid in Syria last weekend, as a “very significant figure within ISIL.” The debriefing of his wife, who was captured, and analysis of material seized at his compound could provide important intelligence information about the group’s operations and financing.
But the success of Islamic State fighters in capturing control of Ramadi despite a U.S. air campaign against them was “clearly a setback,” she said. With Iraqi security forces routed, the United States is now prepared to provide support for Shiite militias mobilizing to help with the battle in the largely Sunni province despite qualms about sparking sectarian tensions.
Progression of any sort would be nice to see at this point, linear or not. With the exception of Tikrit, largely an Iranian operation, the Iraqi military has collapsed wherever they’ve been challenged. At the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins calls Ramadi’s fall more than just “a bleak symbolic defeat,” but an utter disaster not long after a hard-fought victory made Ramadi a place of hope:
During the nearly nine years that American troops fought in Iraq, Anbar Province was one of the most lethal places for American soldiers and Marines; some thirteen hundred died there. In 2008, though, when the Americans finally handed the city back to the Iraqi Army, many of the American Marines present at the ceremony there were not even carrying weapons. After so much bloodshed, Ramadi had become one of the safest cities in the country.
All of that is gone now. Along with the western half of Mosul, which ISIScaptured last summer, Ramadi represents the second pillar of the group’s Iraqi domain. To the west, the Islamic State, as the group calls itself, stretches across the Syrian border and up the Euphrates River, all the way to the suburbs of Damascus. Ramadi’s fall underscores just how troubled the American-backed campaign against ISIS is; increasingly, it seems, the effort to defeat the group is colliding with the very nature of what Iraq and Syria are—or, more accurately, what they are not. …
What happened in Ramadi over the weekend revealed just how misplaced any optimism about Iraq really is. The town, dominated by members of Iraq’s Sunni minority, was largely being held by the Iraqi Army, which has proved to be a deeply fractured and incompetent institution. Last June, when ISIS first swept out of Syria and into northern Iraq, large parts of the Iraqi Army largely disintegrated. Since then, the focus of American efforts has been to rebuild the Army and turn it into an effective fighting force. Even by American assessments, this is a long-term project. The disaster in Ramadi proved just how difficult the challenge is.
Filkins goes on to emphasize that this is in effect the collapse of the post-Versailles order, nearly a century old by now. He’s absolutely right, but the problem remains what to do about it. The only post-Ottoman states with any stability to them have homogenous populations — Iran for Persians, Jordan for Sunni Arabs — or have powerful monarchies-cum-dictatorships to suppress ethnic and sectarian divisions, such as Saudi Arabia and other emirate states. The only real successes for Western national models have been Israel and the long-suppressed national aspirations of the Kurds.
Whatever the US is doing now is clearly not helping, and may be making the situation even worse. The Washington Post’s editorial board says it’s time to stop pretending that Obama and his team are doing anything more than just reacting to events in the Middle East:
IT HAS been apparent for some time that the United States lacks a strategy to fulfill President Obama’s pledge to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State since it has no plan to root out the terrorists’ base in Syria. There was hope, though, that Mr. Obama’s half-measures might be enough to blunt the Islamic State’s advances in Iraq, leaving the Syria problem for the next U.S. president. With the stunning fall of Ramadi on Sunday, even that modest optimism is questionable.
“ISIL is on the defensive, and ISIL is going to lose,” Mr. Obama declared on Feb. 11, using an acronym for the Islamic State. …
Beginning almost a year ago, the Islamic State carved out, across large swaths of Iraq and Syria, a terrorist state of sorts that Mr. Obama deemed intolerable. He said in September that it is a threat to “the broader Middle East,” including U.S. citizens and facilities, and “if left unchecked . . . could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.” Yet he refuses to commit the Special Forces and military assistance that could meet that threat, portraying any alternative to his minimalist policy as being “dragged back into another prolonged ground war.” In fact, Sunni allies in the region will be reluctant to work with the United States until it has a Syria policy, and Sunni tribes in Iraq will not confront the Islamic State unless they believe the United States will stand by them. Every conflict will have ups and downs, as administration spokesmen said Monday. But it is Mr. Obama’s unwillingness to match means to strategy that threatens to prolong this war.
We did have a strategy that worked in 2006-8, but it required American military and diplomatic leadership to bridge the gap between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq. We gave it away for nothing but the political desire of an American president to have a slogan for his next election. Now, it’s doubtful that anything less than a full-scale invasion of western Iraq will stop ISIS, and that would be a bloody affair for both sides regardless of whether it’s American or Saudi boots on the ground. If Obama’s serious about confronting ISIS and demolishing the “caliphate,” then he’d better start getting serious about strategy and means. Otherwise, his continuing reliance on the Iraqi military as his strategy will make him an even bigger joke than they have become.