Was this year for nothing? That is the harsh question which the Islamic State jihadis’ conquest of the symbolic city of Palmyra, Syria, three days after capturing Ramadi, Iraq, begs to be addressed. Less than one year after the fall of Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, the Islamic State group has reaffirmed its hold on a vast territory extending along either side of a now obsolete border.
The fall of the Syrian oasis speaks volumes about the state of the remaining forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. They were unable to defend that strategic point, known for its ancient ruins as well as the prison where hundreds of Islamists were detained, tortured and executed, in a context that prohibited U.S. intervention under pain of appearing like a plea from Damascus. The loss of Ramadi, in turn, highlights the blind spots in Washington’s strategy for facing the jihadis of combining Iraqi troops on the ground with massive aerial support from the U.S. military.
The last hours that preceded the fall of the Sunni Anbar province capital on May 17 attest to this: U.S. airstrikes, however great in number, quickly showed their limits when the first pillar of Washington’s strategy failed. In this case, the Iraqi army’s defeat reflects another impasse — the sectarian divide between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority, which Haider al-Abadi’s government needs to rectify.
The Rooting of the Islamic State group
President Barack Obama had set conditions for the continuation of U.S. operations. But polarization in the community has so far prevented the creation of a national guard to work alongside the regular army, in which Sunnis could play a role locally. This would be akin to the “Sahwa,” or “Awakening” militias that contributed to the demise of jihadi groups in 2007 and 2008. These Sunni militias, sponsored by the U.S. military, were subsequently left unclaimed by Iraqi central authorities during the U.S. withdrawal and were even targeted for retaliation. This precedent complicates attempts to re-try the experience.
On Sunday, the Pentagon was reluctant to confirm the fall of Ramadi. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest tried to put it in perspective by reminding those present that Mr. Obama had always said the fight against the Islamic State group would be long and would include “progress” and “setbacks.” He repeated, as did many U.S. officials, that Ramadi would eventually be retaken, and recalled the setbacks in recent months for jihadis in Kobani, Syria and Tikrit, Iraq, to emphasize the importance of U.S. strategy. Mr. Earnest also legitimized the use of Shiite militias, which have been particularly criticized by Sunnis, by indicating that they had been approved by the council of Anbar province, and noted that the resources mobilized would also include “Sunni volunteers” and “tribal fighters,” all remaining under Baghdad’s control.
One year after the capture of Mosul, a report from the Rand Corporation cited by the New York Times noted the rooting of the Islamic State group in the conquered territories. The analysis studied the share of revenues generated by the oil industry, which has been particularly targeted by U.S. raids, as well as reports of the Islamic State group shifting operations in these regions. Faced with the Islamic State group’s resilience, Washington’s strategy is also harmed by differing regional interests, which coexist within the coalition against the Islamic State group established in the fall of 2014.
The Republicans Speak Up
Turkey, which continues to favor the fall of Bashar al-Assad, also continues to oppose U.S. aircrafts’ use of the U.S. base in Incirlik. The fight against Iran’s growing influence is, moreover, a high priority in countries on the Sunni side of the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. This was confirmed by concrete measures providing for deepened cooperation with the U.S. announced during a meeting of these countries at Camp David on May 14. The magnitude of the Arab military engagement in Yemen, against the Houthi militia accused of being supported by Tehran, is even further proof.
The fall of Ramadi has given voice to the U.S. Republican opposition, prompting it to quickly denounce Mr. Obama’s alleged pusillanimity, but Republicans are careful to outline alternative strategies, apart from sending supplemental forces. The White House has also pointed out that Congress, now controlled entirely by Republicans, has been so far incapable of adopting, at the President’s invitation, a new law authorizing the use of armed force that would specifically target jihadi militias in Syria as well as in Iraq.