After several key victories gained by Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has blamed Iraqi troops for the fall of Ramadi. Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, is located only 70 miles west of Baghdad and is consequently strategically important. A local councilor described the city’s fall to ISIS as “total collapse,” with Iraqi government troops completely routed. On Sunday, Carter told CNN’s State of the Union program that the Iraqis “vastly outnumbered” the militants, but chose to withdraw. He also denounced the U.S.-trained Iraqi troops as having “no will to fight.”
The New York Times highlights that Carter’s comments contained some of the strongest language the Obama administration has yet used to discuss Iraq’s handling of the encroaching militants. “They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force and yet they failed to fight and withdrew from the site,” Carter said. “That says to me and, I think, to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.”
The U.S. has been training and arming the Iraqi forces since American troops withdrew in 2011. But, according to The Washington Post, those efforts have been hampered by a shortage of weapons and ammunition. In June of last year, Iraqi troops fled in disarray as ISIS seized control of the Iraqi city of Mosul. Since January 2015, U.S. trainers have incorporated “classes on the will to fight,” into their sessions with Iraqi soldiers. They’re clearly not hugely effective, if Ramadi’s experience is anything to go by.
The battle for the city killed at least 500 civilians and Iraqi soldiers, but raged for only 72 hours. Despite the fact that Iraq had deployed its best men (the so-called “Golden Division”) to the key settlement in the country’s largest province, the army soon capitulated. An announcement from the Iraqi military instructing its troops not to flee (“Victory will be in the side of Iraq because Iraq is defending its freedom and dignity,” the announcement stated, according to The Guardian) clearly had little impact: The army retreated en masse, with several caught on camera escaping by aircraft.
After the retreat, the Pentagon implied that the Iraqi troops’ mistaken fear of a lack of air support from U.S.-led planes may have precipitated their collapse. “The Iraqi forces in Ramadi believed that because the weather was what it was, that they would not be able to receive air power support,” spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told reporters, referencing a sandstorm that had blown up. “We are now of the opinion that this is one of the factors that contributed to their decision to reposition out of Ramadi.”
These fears were unfounded, according to U.S. military records, which show that seven strikes were carried out near Ramadi as ISIS advanced. Carter did not mention this potentially mitigating factor in his comments Sunday. But Iraq has hit back, claiming that Carter’s allegations are “baseless,” and implying that the U.S. did indeed fail to supply crucial support. Hakim al-Zamili, a senior Iraqi lawmaker who heads the Iraqi parliamentary defense and security committee, said that the U.S. had failed to provide “good equipment, weapons and aerial support” to the soldiers stationed at Ramadi, according to the AP.
Carter made clear that he thought U.S. strategy was sound — despite many grumblings to the contrary — although he suggested that if the conditions demanded it, the U.S. could change its approach. “Air strikes are effective, but neither they nor anything we can do can substitute for the Iraqis’ will to fight,” Carter said. “They're the ones who have to beat ISIL and then keep them beat.”
In effect, Carter’s statements made plain what other commentators have suggested: that the Iraqi forces are inefficient, demoralized, and crumbling in the face of the ISIS advance; and the U.S., demonstrably faulty though its strategy might be, is unwilling to engaged in a more wholehearted battle against ISIS. So if the U.S. and Iraqi troops aren’t eager to battle the jihadist group, who will?
With the route of Iraqi troops in Ramadi, Shia militiamen have been deployed to do battle. This weakens the hand of Iraqi’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi, The New York Times wrote, and could arguably stoke sectarian tensions as well as shift the balance of power on Iraq’s battlefields in favor of Shia player Iran. Iran has been heavily involved in the fight against ISIS for some time, and on Saturday contributed troops to the fight to regain a key Iraqi oil refinery. The Guardian reports that these troops are working closely with Iraq's Shia militia.
Kareem al-Nouri, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilisation Forces (an umbrella organization of Shia militiamen) told Al Jazeera Sunday that it was “hard to predict the timetable” for their battle in Anbar against the militants. “For now our focus is setting up defensive lines,” he said.
But there are many other elements on the battlegrounds of Syria and Iraq: players in this Middle Eastern maelstrom that are also quietly attempting to assert their influence. Syria’s rebel factions — who arguably have more potential for military triumph than the government troops recently routed at Palmyra — have just received a boost, Martin Chulov reported in The Guardian Sunday. In March, Chulov wrote, these rebel groups were supposedly promised all the resources they needed to topple Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad.
“For the first time they were not holding anything from us — except anti-aircraft missiles. The Turks and their friends wanted this over with,” a rebel leader told the reporter. The deal, Chulov explained, was arranged by Saudi Arabia, in concert with other regional powers. The decision, resulting in an in-flow of arms to the groups (which include al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, but not ISIS), sparked a massive offensive. The previously government-held Syrian towns of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur have fallen in recent days.
Whereas Iraqi’s Shia militias are working in concert with
the government, and in collaboration with Iran, Syria’s rebel factions are
wholehearted committed to destroying Assad’s rule — which so far has been
resolutely propped up with the help of Iran (although Assad has consistently
denied that Iranian troops are fighting in the country). The rebels’ recent
successes have sparked concern that Syria’s army, like Iraq’s, is incapable of
“This is not just the ebb and flow of battle,” a senior diplomat from the Arab world told Chulov. “This has been clear and repeated evidence that the regime army cannot defend itself, or the country, even with the ever-heavier backing of its sponsor, Iran.”
Although Carter only mentioned Iraq in his Sunday CNN appearance, the U.S. faces a situation in which neither the Iraqi nor Syrian army are able to protect their civilians from the advance of ISIS and other, now heavily armed, competing rebel factions. The “will to fight,” seems, unfortunately, firmly the preserve of unofficial, vastly divergent, forces. Some of whom the U.S. has committed to train and equip.
Carter made clear that the U.S. government would not make this their war — but he did name one other faction who should step in to do their bit. “We can participate in the defeat of IS. But we can't make Iraq... a decent place for people to live. We can't sustain the victory, only the Iraqis can do that,” he said. “And, in particular in this case, the Sunni tribes to the west.”
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