The Iraqi Army’s taking of the city of Ramadi with help from Coalition airpower over the holiday period is being touted as a major victory over ISIL. It is a victory, and a needed one for the Iraqis since it is nearly the first one they’ve had since ISIL first came boiling out of Upper Mesopotamia in June 2014. On the other hand, how complete, and how strategic, a victory it is, is still open to debate.
The reduction of Ramadi took at least three months (or longer, depending on how you count these things) for an estimated 10,000 troops plus airpower to accomplish against what in the end was a holding force of an (also estimated) 300 – 350 jihadis. That’s well in excess of the 10 – 1 advantage that classical doctrine prescribes for the conduct of a siege, and although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory last week, 80% of the town is in runs and nobody is daring to speculate on what civilian casualties might be. Meanwhile ISIL is providing evidence in the form of suicide counterattacks that the area is not yet as secure as the Iraqis and Coalition would wish to believe.
And that points directly to the problem that has always bedevilled classical strategists: what do you do with an enemy that just won’t quit and keeps on coming?
Despite the high global profile that ISIL has achieved, analysts are now coming to the realization that on the ground, ISIL was never that strong and is probably now a spent offensive force. What it had going for it was surprise, mobility, ferocity and a power vacuum. It tried to assume the form of a state, but no state in a poor, landlocked region at war with the world can possibly sustain itself on smuggled oil and antiquities, and that is now becoming clearer.
But this is where the ‘cornered rat syndrome’ starts coming into play.
Iraqi and US commentators are speculating that Fallujah is next because – again in classical strategic theory – if Fallujah can be retaken it takes strategic heat off Baghdad plus opens the way up the Euphrates toward the former Syrian border (but the Euphrates is a strategic sideshow for the Baghdadi regime because what happens when/if the ISF reaches the Syrian border is one of the big strategic and political elephants in the room). The Tigris and Mosul are the schwerepunkt as far as Baghdad is concerned.
The operational problem is in reducing the towns along the way up either river. Ramadi (and Sinjar earlier in 2015) show that ISIL may not – probably will not – commit much force to holding most of them. In both places the bulk of their troops were moved out to furnish strike forces elsewhere; the Canadian Special Forces seem to have felt the impact of some of this redeployment a few weeks ago.
Reducing every town all the way to the Syrian border and up the Tigris to Mosul would be an impossibly slow chore. In 1944 both the Soviets and Western Allies solved the same problem with a tactic called ‘picket and bypass’, avoiding major cities and allowing the German forces in them to rot on the vine with a light screen of troops to keep them from making trouble.
The problem with the picket-and-bypass tactic is that it only works well with an enemy you are confident will eventually surrender. The Germans did. The Japanese on the Pacific islands were less easily persuaded but they had nowhere to go at all. ISIL is unlikely to surrender; many of their top leadership may fade off to other havens, but the bulk of their jihadis have very little choice but to fight to the death, unless one of the neighbouring states in the area leaves a border open, accidentally or otherwise.
In the coming stage of the war, ISIL is likely to repeat the Ramadi tactic – leave enough fighters that they can’t be ignored in every heavily-mined town, making a prolonged assault inevitable. (Stratfor inter alia is calling this ‘area denial’ and treating it as a new thing in war, but it has roots far back in history; though admittedly modern improvements in portable high explosives and an unlimited willingness to use suicide as a tactic that has multiplied its effectiveness. We have not yet seen whether it is effective against a conventional force like the Russians that has no inhibitions about casualties, though pre-1985 Afghanistan may offer some hints.)
‘Next stop – Mosul’ was an immediate brag after Ramadi, but Mosul is a major city, long-occupied and fortified, and the best armed force in the area – the Kurds – have no motivation to take it on. Miracles always excepted, the retaking of Mosul is likely to be a prolonged, vicious siege and assault from air and ground, heavily complicated by Iraqi – Kurdish – Turkish relations.
Obama’s ‘wait and bomb’ strategy against ISIL, whether by good luck or good management, may in the end be vindicated, but this entire scenario presumes no intrusive external factors. The ISIL war is not being fought in a vacuum and is actually not the first priority for far too many of the in-area and out-of-area actors – the Russians, Assadists, Turks and Iranians all come to mind – and seemingly minor occurrences like the judicial murder of a Shia cleric by the Saudis on January 2 can have ramifications that can rearrange the kaleidoscope of violence in the region in a geopolitical instant. ISIL as a territorial military entity will end sooner or later, but the end will not be clean.
Eric Morse, a former Canadian diplomat, is co-chair, security studies at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto and senior fellow at the NATO Association of Canada.