After a few months in which it seemed that the Islamic State was on the back foot, one week has shaken things up all over again. IS scored two of its biggest victories since taking over Mosul last year, seizing first the Iraqi city of Ramadi, then the Syrian city of Palmyra, and finally the last border crossing between Iraq and Syria they still didn’t control. So why are these cities so important? What will the effect be on Iraq and Syria? And what does this mean for the US’s strategy?
The fall of Ramadi comes after months of fighting, as it’s basically been a battleground since IS started its campaign in Iraq. While the Iraqi army put up a good fight, a wave of suicide attacks on their headquarters a week ago seems to have broken their resolve, and the army fled the city. Ramadi is the biggest Sunni majority city in the country, was the site of heavy resistance to the US in 2006, and is only 100 km west of Baghdad. Together with neighbouring Fallujah, IS now controls two cities close to the capital, which could serve as a staging ground for future attacks.
On the other side of the border IS also had success in capturing Palmyra when its Syrian army defenders gave up the fight. While international attention has focused on the likelihood that the militants will destroy Palmyra’s ancient and famous ruins – one of the most important archaeological sites in the Middle East – it also has a more contemporary importance. The city houses at least 50 000 people, and, similar to Ramadi, could provide allow IS to move into government held areas of the country. To complete their week, the militants then took over the last border post between Iraq and Syria, meaning there is effectively no border anymore.
The events of the week will serve as a massive boost for IS’s supporters. While their territory includes a lot of desert, they now control half of Syria and a third of Iraq, and are linking up the areas under their control. The capture of Ramadi is especially a blow to the Iraqi government, who after the recapture of Tikrit a few months ago thought the war was going better. There won’t be any march on Mosul anytime soon.
Ramadi also shows that the Iraqi army still cannot stand up to the militants, even after all the billions of dollars the US poured into training and arming them. They can generally hold their ground so long as they receive US air support, but without the help of the main Shi’a volunteer militias, they aren’t much of a fighting force. The troops now gathering to try and recapture Ramadi are almost entirely made up of these militias. While some Sunni tribal leaders have called for the Shi’a to help them against IS, they will still be very unpopular in the Sunni heartland of Iraq. Too much blood has been spilled over the last 12 years of war, and the militias are unlikely to be in a forgiving mood if they enter Ramadi. The coming battle will be bloody and will serve as excellent propaganda for IS.
Finally, the last week has also been a serious blow to the US. While Islamic State is still their biggest enemy, the Americans aren’t exactly fans of the Shi’a militias either. Armed, financed and even led by Iran, some of these same militias actually fought the US back during the occupation. The US is now facing the awkward situation of deciding whether to sit this battle out, or to once more provide air cover to Iranian proxies, who will definitely not be their allies once IS is defeated. Unfortunately for Barack Obama, they can’t both lose.
To read more about the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, click on the Middle East header at the top of the page.