An Iraqi soldier holds a national flag in the government complex in central Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Dec. 28, 2015. Iraqi military forces on Monday retook a strategic government complex in the city of Ramadi from Islamic State militants who have occupied the city since May. (AP Photo)
An Iraqi soldier holds a national flag in the government complex in central Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Dec. 28, 2015. Iraqi military forces on Monday retook a strategic government complex in the city of Ramadi from Islamic State militants who have occupied the city since May. (AP Photo)


The expulsion of ISIS fighters from the Iraqi city of Ramadi is a morale-boosting victory for the Iraqi Security Forces after a thoroughly forgettable 2015, good news for beleaguered Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi — and another sign that ISIS is stretched thin across its vast territory in Iraq and Syria.

The recapture of central Ramadi — occupied by ISIS seven months ago as Iraqi troops fled in disarray — is also a sign that closer coordination between Iraqi forces on the ground and coalition airpower is having results, even in a crowded urban area. And it will diminish ISIS’ ability to continue applying pressure on the capital, Baghdad.

But ISIS is unlikely to vanish from the area. It still holds towns and villages to the north and east of Ramadi, and analysts expect its fighters to revert to insurgent tactics as they did around the city of Baiji earlier this year: suicide bombings, ambushes and tactical assaults. Iraqi officials believe ISIS units have melted into Ramadi’s suburbs — clearing and holding the city are two different challenges.

A rare win for Iraqi army

Most of the successes against ISIS in Iraq this year have been thanks to the Kurdish Peshmerga and Shiite militia. The Kurds have driven ISIS out of much of northern Nineveh province and last month captured the town of Sinjar, severing ISIS’ main supply line into Mosul. Shiite militia, supplied and advised by Iran, were controversially in the lead when Tikrit was recaptured in March — a fact ISIS exploited as it tried to highlight alleged atrocities against Sunni civilians.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) played only a supporting role in Tikrit and Baiji, where Abadi was weakened by his reliance on militia not under his control. And in Ramadi the ISF evaporated as ISIS pressed its assault in the summer, leading U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter to say: “We have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL [ISIS] and defend themselves.”

The United States had already begun retraining Iraqi army brigades in the aftermath of a chaotic retreat from Mosul in June 2014. In June this year, U.S. authorities dispatched a further 450 military trainers to work with Sunni tribal militia, and greater attention was devoted to dealing with ISIS’ use of IEDs and vehicle suicide bombs.

Ramadi was the acid test for the ISF, and its recapture is their first achievement of note. Indeed, it’s the first place of any size ISF has recaptured.

The operation to win back Ramadi was only possible with U.S. air support and specialized engineering equipment. But it was achieved without reliance on Shiite militia known as Popular Mobilization Units. While they were active in the early stages, their contribution was far less significant than in Tikrit.

Coalition spokesman Col. Steve Warren recognized the ISF’s achievement in a statement Monday, describing it as “the result of many months of hard work by the Iraqi Army, the Counter Terrorism Service, the Iraqi Air Force, local and federal police, and tribal fighters — all supported by over 600 coalition airstrikes since July.”

But even with vastly superior numbers and supporting airpower, it’s worth remembering that it took nearly six months for the ISF to clear an ISIS presence from Ramadi frequently assessed in the hundreds rather than thousands.

Another setback for ISIS

ISIS’ seizure of Ramadi in May after months of attacks and bombings, was a rapid response to its loss of Tikrit and consolidated its grip over much of Anbar, a Sunni province that stretches for hundreds of miles west of Baghdad. It was also another triumph for ISIS’ highly-mobile mode of warfare and its relentless use of vehicle-born suicide bombs.

Since then, ISIS has been on its back foot in Iraq. Further north, its grip on Baiji’s oil refinery has gradually loosened. Living conditions in its crown jewel, Mosul, have deteriorated as Kurdish forces encircled the city from three directions.

In Syria, ISIS made progress in Homs province, capturing Palmyra in June. But in the north, it has lost ground to an alliance of Syrian Kurds and Arab tribes — which this weekend captured the strategic Tishreen Dam some 45 miles from ISIS’ headquarters in Raqqa. They are also closing in on Ash-Shaddadi, a strategic ISIS-held town near the Iraqi border.

As in Tikrit and Sinjar earlier this year, it appears that ISIS fighters preferred not to stage a last stand to hold territory in Ramadi in the face of overwhelming odds. Instead they left scores of booby-traps and IEDs behind.

But it is a defeat nevertheless. The credibility of the “Caliphate” relies on holding territory and behaving like a state, administering towns and cities, and in its own words “remaining and expanding.” After Mosul, Ramadi was the group’s most important holding in Iraq. Its loss also makes ISIS’ presence in Fallujah, 65 kilometers (40 miles) to the east, more vulnerable.

Altogether, according to an assessment by security analysts IHS/Janes, ISIS now controls 14% less territory than it did at the beginning of the year. That includes a lot of sparsely populated land, but also towns and cities from Hasakah in Syria to Ramadi, and strategic positions such as Eski Mosuland the border crossing between Syria and Turkey at Tal Abyad, which Syrian Kurds captured in June.

A break for Abadi

A month ago, some Iraqi and foreign commentators were writing off Prime Minister Abadi. The central government was virtually bankrupt after the collapse of oil prices; his revamp of the military top brass had shown few results; and his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, was lurking in the wings.

Abadi was attempting the apparently impossible: tackling corruption, reforming the economy, trying to preserve a base of support among the majority Shiites while reaching out to Sunni tribes. He still has an uphill struggle, but retaking Ramadi brings at least some breathing room.

Abadi had promised Ramadi would be retaken and had sidelined the Shiite militia in the operation for fear of alienating local Sunnis. It was a risky approach, but ultimately paid off. Abadi said security will be turned over to police and Sunni tribes — a further effort to reassure local Sunnis and mobilize them in the conflict against ISIS.

Now he is seeking to capitalize on the momentum by promising that the liberation of Mosul, another Sunni city, will be next. But most analysts see that as being even more arduous than clearing Ramadi. The city still has 1.5 million inhabitants and has been heavily fortified by ISIS over the past 18 months. And the Shiite militia that have been so prominent in arresting ISIS’ advance so far, may resist being eclipsed by regular forces.

Challenges ahead

ISIS is frequently called resilient — and with reason. It can take and hold territory as well as one conducting asymmetrical warfare in the manner of an insurgency. It is well organized and agile. And it still holds vast tracts of western Iraq.

Even as the Iraqi military said it killed hundreds of ISIS fighters in Ramadi since July, ISIS’ retreat — rather than annihilation — in the city, allows it to reset in surrounding districts where it is still strong. That may deter many residents from returning home.

There may also be in-fighting among Sunnis between tribes that resisted ISIS and those that co-operated with the group as it took Ramadi.

Experience elsewhere in Iraq suggests that, if anything, expelling ISIS from towns is the easier part of the task. The rehabilitation of Sunni areas, the return of the internally displaced and resumption of essential services is a more complicated and expensive mission — even more so when the Iraqi treasury is nearly empty.

Recent aerial photographs of Ramadi show parts of the city in ruins. Many bridges in the area were destroyed as ISIS tried to stem Iraqi advances.

In July, the World Bank announced a $350 million fund for reconstruction in Iraq, aimed at restoring power, water, housing, roads and bridges in two provinces: Salahdin and Diyala. But the program is spread over five years. The U.N. Development Program is also involved in rehabilitating areas liberated from ISIS control through a fast-track scheme that brings immediate work to places like Tikrit.

International organizations report some progress in attracting the internally displaced to return home. The International Organization for Migration reported in September that some 130,000 people had returned to Tikrit District. But the scale of the task is enormous. In September there were nearly 3.2 million internally displaced civilians in Iraq, including 1.3 million from Anbar province.

As reported by CNN