The recapture of Ramadi: a significant victory

The recapture of Ramadi: a significant victory
The Iraqi army's recapture of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, marks a major milestone for US trained forces who crumbled when IS charged into Iraq in June 2014.
5 min read
31 December, 2015
The city of Ramadi was declared liberated by Iraqi ground forces and allied Sunni tribesmen from Islamic State group [IS, formerly ISIS] control on Monday. 

News of the liberation circulated widely across international media outlets and was met with street celebrations in the Iraqi capital city of Baghdad.

Having being under IS group control for only seven months, why does the liberation of Ramadi hold such symbolic value?

Ramadi, the centre of Sunni resistance to the US, rejects IS

Since the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the city of Ramadi, as capital of the restive Anbar province, was deeply linked with the Sunni resistance to American presence.

Once a home city to many of Saddam's Iraqi army officers and security services, Ramadi became centre of resentment at the new political order following the disbandment of the army post-2003.

Scores of now unemployed army officers and security agents became fertile sources of recruitment for anti-US militant movements.

Battles for Ramadi raged between 2003 and 2007, as the US occupation struggled to assert its presence.

Attacks against US forces were followed by US ground and aerial raids, and 2004 and 2006 saw distinct operations by the Americans to gain full control of the city.

Alongside the neighbouring city of Fallujah, Ramadi gained its reputation as bloodiest locations of US presence.

Following gradual American withdrawal, Ramadi remained a hotbed of militant activity against the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Major protests against Nouri al-Maliki's government in 2014, led by Sunni tribesmen of Anbar, also resonated across the city.

The capture of Ramadi by IS group militants in 2015 was seen not only as a failure of the Iraqi army but also a major victory for IS group in taking over a major symbolic capital of Sunni resistance.

As a traditional hotbed of militant activity, rejecting both the US and the Iraqi government of Baghdad, leaders of IS group may have hoped Ramadi would come to serve both as a fortress and major source of recruitment.

Yet it seems events did not transpire that way. 

Soon after the IS take over many of the citizens of Ramadi left the city.

Both as a result of Iraqi government and then coalition bombardment and widespread arrests and executions by IS militants, many from Ramadi were forced to flee eastwards to Baghdad as internally displaced refugees.

Subsequently, whether stigmatised by the brutal nature of IS rule or maintaining hope in the sentiment of a unified Iraqi nation, the civilian population of Ramadi seem to have rejected IS rule and the ideology that it proclaimed.

The inclusion of Sunni tribesmen as allies of the Iraqi ground forces that recaptured Ramadi may have done much to dispel the fear of sectarianism once plaguing relations between Ramadi and government.

The resurgence of the Iraqi armed forces and central government control

The capture of Mosul by IS in 2014 highlighted further the degradation of central government control under the premiership of Maliki and the corruption of certain battalions of the Iraqi army.

IS group militants launched a speedy assault to capture Mosul, but even they may have been surprised at how quickly the Iraqi defences disintegrated.

Huge amounts of weaponry and armoured vehicles were seized by IS group militants, including dozens of Humvees which were soon put to use in Syria.

Many senior officers from the Iraqi army battalions stationed there infamously fled, often leaving conscripts and normal soldiers behind.

Reports soon emerged of how officers had bought their positions, often hoping to recoup their one-off payments through extortion and corrupt practises of their own.

Corruption in the armed forces was one but not the only factor that alienated the army from the local populace in Mosul.

The recapture of Ramadi in December 2015 however marks a significant stage in the reconstruction and reversal of the fortunes of the Iraqi armed forces.

While victories at Jurf al-Sakhar, Baiki and notably Tikrit were significant, much of these were at the hands of the Popular Mobilization Committees [Hashad al-Shaʿbi], often led by different Shia militant factions.

The lead role taken by the Iraqi ground forces in the recapture of Ramadi, particularly its counter-terrorism division, and its alliance with Sunni allied tribesman, marks one of the most major victories since the fall of Mosul.

In addition to lifting the morale of the Iraqi army, the capture of Ramadi highlights the potency of the restructured army and enhances the political standing of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

IS group loses momentum in retreat

After laying claim to significant parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014, IS group militants have been forced to retreat from a number of captured areas this year.

IS has recently been defeated in Tikrit, Baiji, Hawija, the Tishrin Dam and Sinjar as a result of concentrated and cohesive ground efforts by Iraqi army and allied fighters.

Recent study has shown that the group's control of Iraqi territory has shrunk by 40 percent since last year.

The quick collapse of central Tikrit and now central Ramadi has highlighted a notable reduction in the group's manpower and has highlighted it inability to defend captured territories.

A vindication of Obama's strategy?

US President Barack Obama's strategy to confront the IS threat was based around two axis, the use of airpower to attack IS and the training of and provision of weaponry to local ground forces confront IS militants.

Training and weapon supply programs aimed at defeating IS group led by US army personnel were extended to Syrian rebels but focused in the main on the Iraqi ground forces.

Obama's overall strategy in dealing with IS group has been met with bitter opposition and even derision by his Republican opponents in the US.

Success of Iraqi forces in Ramadi may force a reevaluation.

The presence of the Sunni tribesmen in the recapture of Ramadi

Internal conflicts within Iraq from the reign of Saddam Hussein and then following throughout post-2003 period have been popularly characterised as driven by 'ancient' Shia-Sunni conflicts.

The Battle of Ramadi, however, manifests a coherent Iraqi arm comprised of significant numbers of Shia and Sunni recruits.

Furthermore, Sunni tribesmen were crucial allies of the Iraqi army in the fight against IS in Ramadi.

Their joint raising of the Iraqi flag in the capital of Anbar may dent the potency in the belief of Iraqi sectarianism as 'inherent'.