On 28 December 2015, the Iraqi government declared a landmark victory against the Islamic State (IS) group in Ramadi. However, field indicators show that the Iraqi city is in a state of flux between locally supported Iraqi government forces and IS militants that still control parts of the city.
The Iraqi government rushed, nonetheless, to announce victory in the battle, as well as to exaggerate the size of the military victory. It announced that it took over 80 percent of the city, yet participating US forces stated that they controlled only 30 percent of it, or more precisely three neighborhoods (El-Tamim, El-Warar and Mamal Zogag) in addition to part of the international road between Syria and Iraq crossing through Ramadi.
In comparison, IS still controls five neighborhoods (Alsofih, Andalus, Alsjarih, Jweideh and Almaji) as well as retaining supply lines in the east towards Fallujah through Saqlawiyah, ensuring access to the Syrian borders.
According to the US forces spokesperson, there are 400 IS militants in the middle of the city and 300 others on the eastern axis towards the supply line of eastern Fallujah.
Inflating the victory
The political propaganda by the Iraqi government locally and internationally relates to its aims in the Ramadi battle. The city’s central government complex was the main strategic goal for the Iraqi government. Raising the Iraqi flag on that building would symbolise taking over the whole city. Yet, this may also mean that the government does not intend to liberate the whole city.
The Iraqi government aims to raise the morale of its troops and win a psychological war against IS. Showcasing that Iraqi troops defeated IS in Anbar Province, one of the group’s main strongholds in Iraq, helps overturn negative images of Iraqi forces retreating in the face of the IS invasion over the past 18 months.
Moreover, this victory would guarantee an agreed upon military deal between the Iraqi government and its American counterpart. This deal includes selective arms to counter car bombs, a tactic IS employs widely.
The remaining rounds of the Ramadi battle are unpredictable. There are obstacles that halt a final resolution, on top of which is IS planting explosive devices in many buildings in the city.
Strategic outcome of Ramadi battle
Aside from the way the Iraqi government portrayed the "victory," the battle of Ramadi produced strategic achievements on several levels.
Firstly, the Haider Al-Abadi government proved that it no longer puts anti-IS operations within an ethnic/sectarian context by involving — unlike in the Tikrit battle — popular militias in such confrontations.
This was shown in the considerable mobilisation of some Sunni tribes, which joined the battle as they sought to retaliate against IS, engaging simultaneously in a process of trust building with the current government.
This situation comes in contrast to previous Sunni stances towards the government of Nuri Al-Maliki. The Sunni tribes hope that building trust will lead to the implementation of a government vow to allow Sunni tribes to administer the city in coordination with state security forces.
Other Sunni tribes, nevertheless, were connected to IS during the conflict over Ramadi, due to their dissatisfaction with the exclusionary approach adopted by the government.
Secondly, the loss by IS of a strategic site as Ramadi is a multi-level success. Ramadi is a pivotal city in terms of Iraq's borders, in addition to the Sunni weight in it, which IS takes advantage of to portray itself as the defender of Sunnis in Iraq.
Ramadi, meanwhile, saw the birth of the militant group under the leadership of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and later under Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
Thirdly, the performance of Iraqi troops is another achievement to observe. It is widely known that these troops previously lacked sufficient experience to handle such operations, as seen six months ago in their failure to enter Ramadi after the Tikrit battle.
This time, IS suffered enormous losses at the hand of Iraqi forces, including the arrest of Abu Safaa Al-Damashki and the killing of Abu Ahmed Al-Aelwani (who managed the financial and military affairs of IS in Ramadi), while controlling the major road in Anbar that connects Iraq with Jordan and rehabilitating the image of the Iraqi military.
Moreover, the end result of the Ramadi battle might end the ambitions of IS to seize control of Baghdad, which lies 110 kilomres away from Anbar.
Indirect benefit for the United States
The United States claims it is supporting Iraqi forces by carrying out air support operations under the umbrella of the anti-IS coalition. But while the US exceeded 600 sorties during the Ramadi operation, in addition to planning operations, it is in fact reducing its role in the battle. The US, nonetheless, scored major returns based on its strategic objectives:
1. US forces have invested in the Iraqi army since 2003. The goal was to build an army to fight terrorism. However, other powers were able to divert the US and succeeded in building a sectarian army. Following the Tikrit battle, the US succeeded in achieving its goal. The US has also attempted to clean up some of what it had done in Iraq during its occupation, which led the country to chaos.
2. Refuting the idea that the US is not fighting in Iraq and Syria. Even though the US says that it plays a role in the anti-IS coalition, in reality it is in this fight on it's own, or at least as a partner to Iraqi forces in accordance with a joint security cooperation protocol.
Though French forces in Iraqi Kurdistan were part of military operations alongside Peshmerga forces, they did not participate in the latest operation. Also, the US cost the IS organisation losses on the Iraqi and Syrian fronts at the same time. The US announced during the Ramadi battle that it had killed 10 leaders of IS in Syria.
Accordingly, the outcome of the battle in Ramadi repudiates Russian attempts to belittle or undermine the US role in the war against IS.
Future scenarios: success or repeated failure
The Ramadi battle is a two-sided coin. The first future scenario suggests that the Ramadi operation will be successful and will expel IS. There are material and morale factors that suggest an ability to reach this outcome. IS supply lines have been damaged, and the symbolic victory of seizing the government building is not insignificant.
In an attempt to make sure IS has no way back to dominance in Ramadi, an important point is following up on and continuing to disrupt the supply lines of IS. This in addition to maintaining links with local tribes and investing American support for Iraqi forces to score more victories.
The other scenario is a major setback that would allow IS to regain control of areas they have lost to Iraqi troops. This scenario would come into play in case of a lack of security and governmental control. While unlikely on current indications, a great deal of the dust of battle is yet to settle.