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Muath Al Wari

On Iran, Iraq, and Ramadi

An image grab taken from a video uploaded on 18 May 2015 by Aamaq News Agency, a Youtube channel which posts videos from areas under Islamic State (ISIS) control, allegedly shows ISIS fighters in a street of Ramadi, Iraq, a day after it was captured by the group. (AFP/Aamaq News via YouTube)

This weekend the world was treated to a quintessential episode in the long-running series of the Middle East’s schizophrenia. On Saturday morning news spread that in an overnight raid, US Special Operations Forces killed a key ISIS commander widely known as Abu Sayyaf, a sort of ISIS minister of energy, if you will. It was a momentary reprieve of good news because on Sunday morning we were met with reports of Ramadi’s stunning capture by the Islamic State (ISIS). While spinmeisters were busy spinning, and the appropriate partisan talking points were polished up, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards commander, Qassem Soleimani, took a plane to Baghdad. Soleimani was there, presumably, to help coordinate a potential counteroffensive by Iranian-backed Shiite militias. He might as well have taken a victory lap in the Green Zone, however, for Hajj Qassem has plenty to celebrate.

 

Much of the reaction following Ramadi’s fall has been around what it means for the US-led campaign against ISIS. The debate between the administration and its detractors has focused on what the shortcomings of the effort have been and whether or not Ramadi is indeed significant. John Kerry tried to downplay the fall of the city, expressing his “absolute confidence” that there will be a reversal in the days ahead. According to Washington, this is the ebb and flow of war. To his critics, this yet again confirms (as everything apparently does) the folly of Barack Obama’s strategy in this fight. In the partisan mudslinging, however, a larger point is neglected.

 

Iran is the key player to be watched following the seizure of Ramadi. Following his appointment as Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi has staked his political survival on being a more inclusive leader for Iraq. Unlike his predecessor, Abadi was meant to sooth sectarian tensions and convince Sunnis to join the government in a crucial, unified front against ISIS. It seems the prime minister has failed, and Iran’s allies in Baghdad, including Nouri al-Maliki, are maneuvering to completely sideline him.

 

With the specter of ISIS a mere 80 miles from Baghdad, it is very difficult to find voices that will argue against Iran’s help. And why should they? What seriously protects Iraq today from ISIS? The only reasonable answer—whether we like it or not—is Iran. Indeed, the Iraqi government has already called on the Shiite militias (also known as the Popular Mobilization Units) to join the fight to retake Ramadi. A top advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has declared that ISIS will meet the same fate in Ramadi as it did in Tikrit. That city was liberated by a ground force whose backbone was made up of Shiite fighters helped by American air cover. When Iran essentially leads the liberation of Ramadi, who can argue against it having been Iraq’s best friend?

 

The dispiriting thing is that this trend does not seem to be reversible. Iraq’s Security Forces (ISF) are wholly unprepared, and widely-varying estimates float around about when they could conceivably be ready for the much-anticipated Mosul offensive. The capture of Ramadi confirms doubts about the ISF’s ability to launch that effort any time soon and adds another capacity and logistics hurdle to the campaign against ISIS in Iraq. Americans back in combat on Iraqi soil, in any meaningful number, are a non-starter with the Obama White House. An Arab force is equally unlikely if only for its conceivable sectarian make-up, and Kurdish Peshmerga forces alone will also not suffice.

 

All this reinforces the impression that Iran is the only option. Outside delaying any serious effort to engage ISIS in Iraq until the ISF is ready, the Iraqi government turning to Iran becomes exceedingly likely. Indeed, the only potential obstacle to Baghdad completely outsourcing its national security to Soleimani is removed with Al-Abadi’s increasingly obvious weakness. An Iranian-backed offensive to retake Ramadi could succeed. It will, however, have to contend with the daunting problem of a native population viscerally suspicious of Shiite forces. If the counterinsurgency strategy of the US during the occupation illustrated anything it was the urgency of buy-in from the local population—without that buy-in it’s hard to see the offensive succeeding.

 

Regardless of the tactical success of any potential Iranian-led offensive to repel ISIS from Iraq, the strategic die has been cast. For the foreseeable future the only foreign power that has any serious purchase in Iraq is Iran. And this—the complete dissipation of Iraq’s sovereignty vis-a-vis Iran—is a potentially game-changing development for the spread of radicalism in the country; for sectarian divisions, for the Iran/Saudi Arabia cold war, and potentially for Iraq’s political and territorial integrity.

 

Though an Iraq floating in the Iranian orbit seems a fait accompli today, it did not always have to end this way. Iraqi Shiites were not always willing allies of Iran; Iraqi Sunnis were not always ambivalent about their central government. Ever since the US invasion, however, decisions made and not made paved the path to this point. It was Iran alone that successfully exploited Iraq’s deepening cleavages and was both willing and capable of playing the long-game. And to the victor, naturally, go the spoils.

 

Muath Al Wari is a Middle East analyst based in Washington DC. He tweets @MuathAlWari

 

An image grab taken from a video uploaded on 18 May 2015 by Aamaq News Agency, a Youtube channel which posts videos from areas under Islamic State (ISIS) control, allegedly shows ISIS fighters in a street of Ramadi, Iraq, a day after it was captured by the group. (AFP/Aamaq News via YouTube)

With the specter of ISIS a mere 80 miles from Baghdad, it is very difficult to find voices that will argue against Iran’s help."

  • Petrossou

    The whole war is to tear and wear the sides. Whether it is Iran, Pakistan, Saudi arabia or Syria, Sunnis, Chias, Talibans or Kurds nothing will stop Iranian aggressivity but ISIS and nothing will stop ISIS criminality but Iran. Therefore, war is here for quite a long time still until both will fell on their knees begging for peace.

    May 25, 2015