Ramadi's Fall, Obama's Strategy, Iraq's Future

Outside Ramadi looking in.

Photographer: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty

Islamic State's capture of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland, may well lead to the unraveling of President Barack Obama's Iraq strategy. More important, however, is how it affects Iraq's Iraq strategy.

As U.S. and Iraqi leaders plan their counterattack -- and the forthcoming fight for Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, which is also controlled by Islamic State -- they need to ensure the battle is waged in a way that helps to heal sectarian divisions.

The fall of Ramadi will have little strategic value in the war against jihadism; the terrorist group already controlled the area around it. In the immediate term, Islamic State's victory counts as a public-relations win and little else.

Nevertheless, the chaotic collapse of Ramadi's mostly Sunni security forces was discouraging. Neither U.S. air support nor a last-minute influx of military equipment from Baghdad could entice them to stand their ground against a relatively paltry number of jihadists. Most of the materiel they had, including at least 60 military vehicles, is now in enemy hands.

Shiite forces are now headed to recapture Ramadi, and Mosul will almost certainly be retaken this fall by Iraqi military and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The manner in which these military missions are carried out will be critical to Iraq's long-term stability. Mosul is a multiethnic city with a populace greatly distrustful of Baghdad. If Shiite troops and militias commit the same sorts of atrocities against Sunni civilians there as occurred in the retaking of Tikrit last month, it could mark the end of any hope for a unified Iraq.

This may seem an acceptable outcome to many Shiites and Kurds -- and, indeed, to many Americans, who wonder why the U.S. is still involved in Iraq after a dozen years. But it would be a disaster for the region and U.S. interests. 

Here's why: A rump Iraq governed from Baghdad would easily fall more deeply under the sway of Iran, which is increasingly engaging in a sort of proxy war for regional hegemony with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf-state allies. An independent Kurdistan would face varying degrees of hostility from its neighbors, be largely dependent on the U.S. for its security, and find it difficult to come to an agreement with Baghdad over control of oil fields and Kirkuk. As for the Sunni areas: Even assuming Islamic State is defeated, they would remain a hotbed of discontent and a potential safe haven for al-Qaeda and other Sunni terrorist groups.

The best future for Iraqis, and for peace in the region, is some sort of federalized state, even one that allows greater autonomy for the Kurdish and Sunni areas than the current constitution envisions. That's one reason the U.S. has to work to ensure that the effort to retake Mosul is handled carefully and well.

To this point, U.S. efforts to train and advise Iraqi forces have been hamstrung by rules barring American personnel from accompanying their charges into battle in noncombat roles. Iran has increased its influence immeasurably by sending its officers to the front lines. U.S. personnel in forward positions could improve coordination with American air support, as well as provide on-the-ground protection against civilian atrocities.

The U.S. should also use its influence with Baghdad to insist that well-trained, Sunni-led brigades lead the invasion, and that the city be governed impartially after liberation. The U.S. must also ensure that military aid it sends through Baghdad to the Kurds actually reaches the Peshmerga in a timely way.

It will take time and perseverance, but Islamic State can be overcome. How that happens is crucial -- and will have a profound impact on whether Iraq will continue to be hospitable to Islamic extremists or becomes a more stable and democratic state.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.