There are two big stories about ISIS this weekend. U.S. forces have killed an ISIS leader in Syria and ISIS has taken control of Ramadi, just 80 miles from Baghdad.
The first story seems to be getting most of the press; it’s the headline story in today’s Washington Post. But the second strikes me as more significant.
In my view, the most notable thing about the killing of Abu Sayyaf, who directs ISIS’s oil and gas operations in Syria, is that the U.S. sent “boots” into Syria to accomplish the deed. But there is no indication that this signals an intention by President Obama to deploy U.S. troops truly to take on ISIS in Syria. Pinprick air strikes and targeted killings of ISIS leaders seem to be as far as he’s willing to go.
I no longer get very excited when the U.S. kills this or that ISIS bigwig. ISIS, like al Qaeda, has shown the ability to replace upper tier leaders. Let me know when we kill the top guy, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Short of that, I’m not terribly impressed.
I am impressed, and dismayed, that ISIS has taken Ramadi. The capital of Anbar province, Ramadi has been a stronghold of opposition to ISIS and, before that, al Qaeda. As the Washington Post reminds us, it was at the forefront of the Sunni awakening in which U.S.-backed tribesmen routed al Qaeda.
It looks like there will be no repeat of that awakening, and why should there be? The U.S. surge was a necessary component of the awakening. Sunnis knew they could count on American support and protection when they turned against al Qaeda. Today, they can count on no such thing.
The brutal crackdown that has accompanied ISIS’s takeover of Ramadi illustrates the problem. According to the Post, ISIS’s sleeper cells in the city are identifying residents who joined or cooperated with the police and the Iraqi military. Those identified as government collaborators are being executed and their homes are being destroyed.
Under these conditions, and with the U.S. unwilling meaningfully to engage, we cannot expect Sunnis to cast their lot against ISIS to the degree necessary to bring about an “awakening.” Indeed, applied to the situation on the ground today, the term is a misnomer. The reality the Sunnis awaken to now is vastly different from the reality we helped create in 2007.
To be fair, there have been military successes against ISIS in Iraq. Tikrit is probably the best example.
Why did ISIS fail in Tikrit but succeed in Ramadi? According to the Post, “pro-Iran Shiite militias proved decisive in overwhelming Islamic State forces.” Those militias have not participated in the Anbar province fight.
Here, then, is the new reality to which Iraqis and Americans both should awaken. Under President Obama, Iranian dominated forces, not the American military, are the key ingredient in the fight against ISIS in Iraq.
As for Syria, no key ingredient yet exists.