Why did Ramadi fall to ISIS?

May 26, 2015

The fall of Ramadi is another humiliating defeat for the Iraqi government and for U.S. foreign policy, but there's no new strategy on the horizon, explains Eric Ruder.

THE FIRST reports of the fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi--another embarrassing setback for the U.S. government against an enemy whose rise to prominence is a direct consequence of the disastrous "war on terror" under George Bush and Barack Obama--literally blamed bad weather.

According to the New York Times account, fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) used the cover of a sandstorm to launch a wave of car-bomb attacks, followed by a ground assault that forced Iraqi troops to flee--without a fight.

About a week later, another battle over Ramadi began--a war of words started by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's appearance on CNN's State of the Union, during which he lambasted Iraqi military forces for "lack[ing] the will to fight," even though "they vastly outnumbered the opposing force."

Carter's comments were a predictably self-serving attempt to shift blame for Ramadi's loss onto Iraqi forces, even though the U.S. government has been dictating strategy in the war against ISIS--and, since early April, heralding a supposed string of successes since retaking the northern city of Tikrit from ISIS fighters.

ISIS fighters riding in a convoy
ISIS fighters riding in a convoy

U.S. officials had claimed that American air strikes were degrading ISIS's fighting capacity, that the hardline Islamists had been forced to surrender some 25 percent of the territory they seized over the past year, and that Iraqi forces would soon launch a campaign to retake Anbar, the massive province that extends westward from the capital of Baghdad toward Syria.

Then came news of the fall of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar--followed by reports that ISIS had conquered Palmyra in Syria, giving it control over more than half of the country.

The near-simultaneous routs of Syrian and Iraqi forces at the western and eastern edges of the territory ISIS commands were a stunning setback to the U.S. strategy of using air strikes to supplement local fighting forces in the war against ISIS.

After Carter's scapegoating CNN appearance, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi struck back, insisting that the defense secretary was "fed the wrong information." Abadi claimed that Iraqi forces would retake Ramadi "within days."

But Abadi, a Shia political leader at the head of a Shia coalition that runs a largely Shia-dominated government, wasn't the only one to join the war of words. Abadi's political rivals called Abadi an American puppet who had been too indulgent of U.S. priorities--such as keeping Shia militias away from the fighting in Ramadi. "Abadi was under the pressure from America to not let [the militias] intervene," said Naim Alubdi, a spokesperson for the Shia militia Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq. "And now when it's too late, he asks us to come and rescue."

This highlights the sectarian dynamic set in motion more than a decade ago after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the occupiers cynically stoked sectarian divisions in order to solidify their rule. The previously marginal forerunners of ISIS gained a prominent place in the Sunni resistance, while the Shia militias became the real power within the Iraqi army and security forces.

Last year, the U.S. backed Abadi's ascension to power, seeing him as a leader who could draw Sunni and Kurdish political leaders behind the predominantly Shia government. Previously, the U.S. believed Abadi's predecessor Nuri al-Maliki was most capable of leading a strong Iraqi central government.

NONE OF the explanations floated in Washington or Baghdad explain why Iraqi government troops collapsed in the face of ISIS's assault on Ramadi. The crucial reason is that the sectarian civil war set in motion by the U.S. occupation has weakened Iraq's central government to the point that few are willing to give their lives to protect it.

One of the earliest edicts imposed by the U.S. occupation authority banned members of the Baath Party--which ruled Iraq under the former dictator Saddam Hussein--from holding government posts, and another directive disbanded the Iraqi military. Iraq's Shia majority was thrust into positions of power, while the Baath Party, predominantly though not exclusively Sunni, was sidelined.

Today, many of Iraq's most capable and experienced officers aren't in the Iraqi military. Having been locked out of the government and military under the occupiers, they eventually came together to form the backbone of ISIS.

In this sense, Defense Secretary Carter may be right: Iraqi troops may "lack the will to fight." But the will to wage war is always a political question, and the U.S. bears the primary responsibility for the disastrous state of Iraqi politics.

The U.S. deployed tens of thousands of American personnel and spent billions of dollars to train the Iraqi military, but in the absence of a strong central government with political legitimacy, all of that was simply squandered. As foreign policy analyst Peter Galbraith put it:

Pentagon planners understand the deficiencies of the Iraqi Army. It is disorganized, poorly led, politicized, corrupt, and plagued by sectarian and ethnic divisions. But where they go wrong is to imagine that these problems can be corrected with better leadership, training and a policy of inclusiveness towards disaffected Sunnis and Kurds.

In fact, the problems of the Iraqi Army reflect the problems of Iraq where Shiites and Sunnis don't agree on what it means to be Iraqi and where the Kurds unanimously don't want to be Iraqi at all. The deficiencies of the army cannot be corrected because they reflect the realities of the society.

THE ISIS offensive led to unspeakable horrors in the streets of Ramadi, as their fighters butchered soldiers and civilians alike. Somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 residents fled Ramadi as ISIS took the city. Days later, many are still stranded at government checkpoints, barred from entering Baghdad and other areas that are Shia-dominated.

Meanwhile, 25,000 Shia militia members are massing in preparation for a counter-offensive to retake Ramadi. But many people fear the liberation of Ramadi by Shia militias, with their record of executions and torture of Sunnis, would be even more bloody than ISIS.

The strategy of the Abadi government, encouraged by the U.S., was based on the hope that Sunni tribes would fight ISIS alongside Shia militias. These Sunni fighters are now reeling after Ramadi's fall and angry at the failure of the government to provide the weapons they need.

The Obama administration says it's rushing up to 2,000 shoulder-fired antitank weapons to Iraqi government units, but no one truly believes that more weaponry--or more training--will tip the balance decisively in favor of Iraqi troops.

This has sparked a debate among U.S. politicians about how to proceed. Some are arguing for a more muscular approach. Here is Republican former Sen. Rick Santorum's bone-chilling proposal: "If ISIS wants to bring back a seventh-century version of Islam, then we need to load up our bombers and bomb them back into the seventh century, where they belong."

Arizona Sen. John McCain argues for more U.S. Special Forces on the ground in Iraq, both to accompany Iraqi forces into battle and to provide on-the-ground spotting of targets for U.S. airstrikes. "It's because we don't have somebody on the ground who can identify a...moving target," McCain said on CBS's Face the Nation. "We need to have forward air controllers. We need to have Special Forces."

But few Americans support the idea of sending U.S. ground forces back into Iraq--a fact that Hillary Clinton is acutely aware of as she ramps up her presidential campaign. "There is no role whatsoever for American soldiers on the ground to go back, other than in the capacity as trainers and advisers," Clinton said on May 22. In other words, Clinton is in favor of more of what brought Iraq to this point in the first place.

Decades of U.S. foreign policy have punished Iraq in one form or another--the catastrophic first Gulf War under George H.W. Bush in 1991 a decade of genocidal sanctions under Bill Clinton, another invasion and the occupation of Iraq under Bush Junior--and now the pseudo-withdrawal under Obama that has only paved the way for air strikes, bloodshed, sectarianism and humanitarian catastrophe.

Any semblance of justice must begin not only with an immediate end to U.S. intervention in Iraq--finally and for good--but also the payment of reparations on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars.

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