WSJ: Fall of Palmyra to ISIS is a strategic disaster for coalition

The capture of Palmyra by ISIS qualifies as a humanitarian disaster for obvious reasons, and an archaeological disaster, as the media has repeatedly noted while the ancient city was first threatened. The ruins date back millenia, with some of the best-preserved examples of Roman architecture, which influenced much of what followed the empire’s demise in the region. The real issue for the anti-ISIS coalition is the strategic value of the city on the crossroads of major communication routes, and its fall will seriously complicate any attempts to “degrade and destroy” the marauding jihadist army, write Raja Abdulrahim and Karen Leigh for the Wall Street Journal:

Islamic State fully captured the Syrian city of Palmyra and its ancient archaeological treasures on Thursday, providing the extremist group with a strategic base from which to advance on key Syrian state-held areas.

Moving in after government troops fled, the Islamic State fighters also seized a nearby oil field, a military airport and the notorious Palmyra prison, where Syria’s government has held and tortured political prisoners for decades. Syrian activists, a U.S. intelligence official and Islamic State all concurred that the group was fully in control of Palmyra, the first time the jihadist group wrested a major city from the government.

The battle killed hundreds of people, including dozens of civilians killed by the extremist group, activists said, and leaves a United Nations-declared World Heritage Site in the hands of a group that has destroyed other treasured Middle Eastern antiquities before.

It was the extremist fighters’ second victory in days after they seized the city of Ramadi in neighboring Iraq, raising questions about the U.S. strategy to defeat Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, through airstrikes and by a limited program to train local opposition.

Essentially, this does two things for ISIS. It cuts off the ground communications between the Assad regime and its eastern stronghold, which means that coordination against ISIS will be all the more difficult for Syrian forces. Since we’re not interested in coordinating with Syrian forces against ISIS anyway, that’s not much of a direct consequence to us. Capturing Palmyra offers ISIS a direct path to Jordan, which is a very big deal for the US and for the health of the anti-ISIS coalition.

Combined with the fall of Ramadi in Iraq, the developments would normally lead one to conclude that ISIS has momentum and that the coalition opposing it has failed to meet the challenge. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg asked Obama whether the strategy to “degrade and eventually destroy” ISIS was failing, but Obama said that Ramadi had only been a “tactical setback”:

Jeffrey Goldberg: You’ve argued that ISIS has been on the defensive. But Ramadi just fell. Are we actually losing this war, or would you not go that far?

President Barack Obama: No, I don’t think we’re losing, and I just talked to our CENTCOM commanders and the folks on the ground. There’s no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time, primarily because these are not Iraqi security forces that we have trained or reinforced. They have been there essentially for a year without sufficient reinforcements, and the number of ISIL that have come into the city now are relatively small compared to what happened in [the Iraqi city of] Mosul. But it is indicative that the training of Iraqi security forces, the fortifications, the command-and-control systems are not happening fast enough in Anbar, in the Sunni parts of the country. You’ve seen actually significant progress in the north, and those areas where the Peshmerga [Kurdish forces] are participating. Baghdad is consolidated. Those predominantly Shia areas, you’re not seeing any forward momentum by ISIL, and ISIL has been significantly degraded across the country. But—

Goldberg: You’ve got to worry about the Iraqi forces—

Obama: I’m getting to that, Jeff. You asked me a question, and there’s no doubt that in the Sunni areas, we’re going to have to ramp up not just training, but also commitment, and we better get Sunni tribes more activated than they currently have been. So it is a source of concern. We’re eight months into what we’ve always anticipated to be a multi-year campaign, and I think [Iraqi] Prime Minister Abadi recognizes many of these problems, but they’re going to have to be addressed.

As if on cue, the New York Times published a column by Ahmed Ali from the Education for Peace in Iraq Center proclaiming that the fall of Ramadi doesn’t mean ISIS is winning, even when combined with the fall of Palmyra. Those victories, Ali claims, are signs of ISIS’ desperation:

Palmyra has economic and cultural significance, as it sits among gas fields and is home to renowned ruins. But Ramadi, in western Iraq, is of far greater military and strategic consequence.

The attack on Ramadi was a sign of desperation, not strength. It took 16 months of continual clashes with tenacious Iraqi security forces and loyal Sunni tribes before the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, could take Ramadi. Before it fell, the Islamic State already controlled half of the city. Its battlefield rivals were exhausted, and it wanted to give its adherents a psychological boost. Ramadi was a ripe target.

But the Islamic State is not on an unstoppable march. In Iraq, and to some extentSyria, it remains on the defensive. In April, the Islamic State’s defenses in large swaths of Salahuddin Province and the provincial capital, Tikrit, collapsed. In the north, Iraqi Kurds have contained the Islamic State. In Syria, Kurds supported by Iraqi pesh merga forces and by American airstrikes decisively defeated the group in the town of Kobani. Unlike the disastrous fall of Mosul in June 2014, the conquest of Ramadi hasn’t led to a collapse of Iraqi military units.

There is even a silver lining in the fall of Ramadi. Before last week, many Iraqi leaders seemed to have forgotten that the Islamic State was still a threat and failed to give credit to those doing the most to resist it. The former prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki — whose own inept security policies helped create the Islamic State — railed against Iraqi Kurdish aspirations for independence, despite the Kurds’ valiant efforts to neutralize the Islamic State in northern Iraq. The governor of Nineveh Province, Atheel al-Nujaifi, was in Washington early this month advocating an autonomous Sunni region even while his capital, Mosul, was in the Islamic State’s clutches. During my trip to Iraq in March, other elites spoke to me as though the Islamic State had already been destroyed. Ramadi has ended their complacency.

So 150 “desperate” ISIS fighters routed 6,000 “exhausted” Iraqi soldiers? Riiiiiiiiight.

Ali argues that the loss will galvanize Sunni tribal leaders against ISIS, just as AQI’s depravities prompted the Anbar Awakening. There is a huge missing element, though, and that is US troops to guarantee Sunni access in Baghdad. Ali says the US must now mediate a rapprochement, but on what basis? The Bush administration did just that by having boots on the ground to force Baghdad into honoring its promises of multi-sectarian partnerships. Obama yanked the troops out and made it clear that he didn’t see that as the job of the US, a point he reiterated to Goldberg in the same interview.

Lauaghably, Ali also says that “the United States should also seek to limit any fallout from the operations of Iranian-backed Shiite armed groups in Anbar.” Say what? If the path to victory against ISIS means convincing the Sunni tribes that the Shi’ite militias from Iran should run all over Anbar, then this war is utterly lost already. The Sunnis wanted the US to prevent Shi’ite militias from oppressing them, especially from Iran. Obama isn’t interested in doing that, so how does Ali propose the US “limit the fallout” from precisely the nightmare scenarios the Sunnis wanted the US to prevent in the first place?

It’s the Chip Diller defense:

Nate Beeler put it best today: