What Ramadi Means for Iran’s Campaign

The fall of the city center of Ramadi in Iraq’s westernmost province of al-Anbar was important enough to the Iraqi government that it took the risky propaganda step of having the Prime Minister visit and ‘tour’ the city.  Although parts of the city remain under control of the Islamic State (ISIS), Iraq took the risk in order to be able to present the image of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaking from Ramadi and promising to carry the war against ISIS to the pivotal city of Mosul.  It is not at all clear whether Iraq will be able to make good on that pledge for several reasons.  One of them is the intense influence of Iran on Baghdad.

There are two vectors through which that influence will affect the outcomes of the war against ISIS within Iraq.  The first is the danger posed by Iranian-backed Shi’a militia to a stable final outcome.  The second is the degree to which those militia are part of an Iranian unconventional warfare effort that may force Baghdad to take sides against Turkey, for whom the Mosul region is indispensable to their concerns about Kurdish fighters.

The first vector has two elements.  The most immediate concern is the danger that the Iranian-backed Shi’a militia pose to any capacity to consolidate Iraqi gains in Anbar.  Readers of IranTruth will recall that after the recapture of the city of Tikrit, once home to Saddam Hussein, Iran’s militia forces committed grave war crimes against the Sunni population.  Fearing a similar display in Ramadi, Iraq’s government elected not to employ Shi’a militia in the campaign — at least, not in major or visible roles.

[A]s of Monday it was unclear how big a role the Shiite militias, with their Iranian backing, played. That’s a crucial question, because if the liberation of Ramadi is seen effectively as a Shiite project and a power play by Iran, it’s more likely to increase sectarian tension and further alienate a Sunni population whose assistance, analysts say, Iraq and the U.S. desperately needs to ultimately defeat ISIS.

Riedel said that initial reports the Shiite militias had been largely kept out of the battle for Ramadi was “a positive sign.” U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that the militias didn’t play a major role, though they couldn’t categorically say that none of those fighters had taken part.

“If the Sunnis are given respect and authority…it will facilitate further offensives against Daesh,” Riedel said, using an alternate name for ISIS.

The election not to employ Shi’a militias is problematic for another reason, which is that those militia represent a serious threat to the stability of the Baghdad government itself.  This is the second element of the first vector.  Leaders of these militias have promised to overthrow the government should the order come down from the Ayatollah Khamenei.  One reason it took five months for Ramadi to fall is that not only did Baghdad not employ the Shi’a militia, it then had also not to employ larger elements of its own security forces — because they were needed to ride herd on the Shi’a militia. Michael Knights at War on the Rocks explains that this is part of a general preparation for a larger regional war once ISIS is contained or defeated:

Local actors’ preparations for the next war — or, likely, wars — helps explain the slow progress of the battle against the Islamic State so far. Iraqi Kurdish leaders are open about the coming clash with Shia militias and other Baghdad-backed forces along the disputed boundary with federal Iraq. The Baghdad Operations Command continues to hold around half of the offensive-capable Iraqi military units in reserve in the capital despite the declining risk of an Islamic State attack on Baghdad. Why? To offset the risk posed by the Shia militias. The Kurds in Syria are readying for a future war against Turkey to preserve their de facto statelet along the Turkish–Syrian border.

This brings us to the second vector Iranian influence:  the effect of Iran’s unconventional warfare efforts in Iraq on relations with Turkey.  Those Shi’a militia are part of an Iranian push to force Iraq to side against Turkey in favor of Iran’s and Russia’s unified efforts to dominate the northern Middle East.  This was on display during the recent affair of the shoot-down of a Russian aircraft.  Turkey attempted to soothe Baghdad with the dispatch of two undersecretaries, one from its intelligence office and one from its foreign affairs ministry.  They were met with a massive rally in which thousands burned Turkish flags, clearly led and organized by one of the Iranian-backed Shi’a militias.

Note the flags and banners of Iranian-backed Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq.

Note the flags and banners of Iranian-backed militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

Iraq appealed to the United Nations the same day, getting an important diplomatic assist from Russia, to ask the UN to force Turkey to withdraw from Iraqi territory.  Iran’s pressure internally combined with Russian diplomatic support aligns Baghdad with the Iranian/Russian project, and against Turkey and possibly NATO.  Turkey declined to withdraw.  It has a major strategic interest in the Mosul region, and in any case its withdrawal would not be in favor of official Iraqi government forces but rather would create a vacuum to be filled by who knows which militant force.

When they push against Mosul, Iraqi forces will face a much stiffer challenge than faced them in Ramadi, where ISIS only ever had a small number of fighters.  Control of Mosul is a major effort for ISIS, and they have had far longer to entrench far greater numbers of forces.

“Comparing the retaking of Ramadi to the fight to retake Mosul is comparing apples and fish,” Ioannis Koskinas, a retired Air Force officer and now a fellow in the International Security Program at New America, told The Daily Beast. Only a few hundred ISIS fighters in Ramadi were able to hold off Iraqi security forces for months amid hundreds of coalition airstrikes and a campaign that was months in the making, he said. “Mosul will be a much more difficult fight.”

Given likely Turkish opposition to Iraq reasserting itself in the Mosul region at all, the campaign becomes all the more difficult.  The Iranian project to dominate the northern Middle East from Afghanistan to the Levant is pushing Baghdad towards a conflict with Turkey that may not merely make defeating ISIS far more difficult.  It is likely the first stage to a wider regional war.