Small Wars Journal

The Coming Battle for Ramadi; Checkers Versus Chess

Fri, 08/14/2015 - 6:02pm

The Coming Battle for Ramadi; Checkers Versus Chess

 Gary Anderson

Iraq’s armed forces and their Shiite militia allies are beginning preparations to retake Ramadi the capital of the heavily Sunni province of Anbar which they lost to the self- styled Islamic State in May; American advisors are assisting them in planning the operation. There is a much better than fifty-fifty chance that the operation will become another Iraqi strategic failure. Simply stated, the jihadists are playing chess while the loose coalition arrayed against them is playing checkers.

The army that the Islamic State has created is very adept at maneuver warfare; it focuses its enemies on strategically meaningless objectives while Islamic State forces probe for weaknesses to exploit elsewhere. Once the opponent has massed forces and cannot shift them quickly, the excellent jihadist light infantry will attack the selected targets of opportunity.

Having declared victory in one place, the Iraqis and their erstwhile American and Iranian mentors then find themselves confronted with Islamic State gains elsewhere. The Kurds and Americans announced victory in repulsing the forces of the would-be Caliphate at Kobane on the Syrian-Turkish border last winter only to find that the jihadists had made gains elsewhere in Syria and in Iraq’s Anbar province. Likewise, in the spring, a massive Iraqi force outnumbering the small Islamic State garrison in Tikrit took a month and heavy casualties to exploit a 15-1 numerical advantage to retake the strategically insignificant home town of Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile the main forces of the jihadist army were scouting out Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria; both fell quickly. This is where the checkers-chess analogy becomes relevant.

Neither Tikrit nor Kobane had any intrinsic value to the Caliphate; both were created as strategic objectives in the minds of the Americans and their Iraqi allies. In the Islamic State’s chess game, there are two queens. Raqqa in Syria is their political capital, and Mosul in Iraq is their financial war chest. Anything that the jihadists can do to distract their opponents from capturing those queens is an operational success. Ramadi is the latest in a series of bright shiny objects dangled in front of a kitten; but in this case, the kitten, the anti-ISIS coalition, more resembles Garfield the fat cat. Ponderous, and slow on its feet, the coalition chases the next object to come into view while ISIS moves around it and pulls its tail.

This brings us to Ramadi. Ramadi is a rook, if not a pawn, in this game. As General Martin Dempsey said, Ramadi itself has no intrinsic strategic value. Ramadi’s value to the Islamic State was the propaganda triumph of taking it so easily; but having the Iraqis marshal their strength and American airpower there means that any attempt to take Mosul will be delayed even longer, thus allowing the jihadists to strengthen their defenses and pour in more volunteer foreign fighters and to recruit local Sunnis to their cause. Nothing succeeds like success, and the Islamic State’s ability to stand up to both America and Iran is a strong drawing card to Sunni’s, even those who don’t care for the nascent Caliphate’s ideology.

The Islamic State has sometimes been compared to Nazi Germany; but Caliph al Baghdadi, or whoever is calling the military shots, is no Adolph Hitler. Hitler would have declared Tikrit and Ramadi to be “fortresses” and ordered them  be held the death. The jihadists will do what Hitler’s generals vainly tried to convince him to do; they will conduct strategic withdrawals when overmatched, and attack elsewhere to keep the coalition off guard. No force can be strong everywhere; frankly, the Iraqis have a hard time being strong anywhere, even where they think they are.

In Ramadi, the Iraqis will probably build a berm around the city as the Americans did in several urban fights in Iraq in order to isolate the town. The jihadists will try to break that barrier at its weakest points, probably west of the city, to create a corridor in and out. If the Iraqi forces fight poorly, the jihadists may reinforce the city and create as many casualties as they can; if faced with overwhelming force, they will leave. All the while, the jihadists will be probing for weakness elsewhere. My bet would be for them to circumvent the siege of Ramadi and strike east at Abu Ghraib City which abuts the Baghdad International Airport.

By threatening the airport, the Islamic State will have carried the war another hundred miles from Mosul; that is chess.


While Colonel Anderson's analysis of ISIL is relatively sound I am afraid
that his analysis of the Coalition is on shakier ground.

Firstly the Coalition is not a coalition of equals. The US may wish the
Iraqi Government to adopt a different approach but the US is no longer in a
position to dictate any particular approach. While the US may provide the
preponderance of air power and enabling capability the Iraqis are in the
driving seat and the Iranians are to a greater or lesser extent giving the
course to steer. The Iraqis have a campaign plan and that campaign plan is
set by their perception of the threat they face, the government's political
realities (it cannot do everything it may wish to do or we may wish it to
do) and their assessment of their military capabilities (strengths and

The Iraqi perspective can probably be best understood as that of viewing
Iraq as a Baghdad centric city-state. Their main effort is on securing
Baghdad and then securing Baghdad's revenue streams. Once those are secure
then the defeat of ISIL can be undertaken, but there is no immediate rush to
do so and the main effort will always be on securing Baghdad. A methodical
approach that mitigates their limited combined arms capability while
allowing maximum time for Coalition airpower to shape the battlespace seems
an inherently sensible way to approach the problem. It is also a far more
cost-effective solution from the Iraqi perspective - they are not paying for
the airpower.

"Neither Tikrit nor Kobane had any intrinsic value to the Caliphate",
arguably they had no intrinsic value to the Baghdad Government. They
assumed importance to the Coalition because of the political pressure placed
by humanitarian grounds and the fact that the narrative of ISIL defeat had
been supplanted by a narrative of ISIL expansion. From a Baghdad perspective
the fall of Tikrit and Ramadi simply confirmed that the Sunni tribes were
behaving more like enemies than allies of the Baghdad government. If the
Sunni tribes had at best acquiesced in the expansion of ISIL (at worst they
actively connived) then why should the Baghdad government expend its blood
and treasure in "liberating' them?
The simple fact of the matter is that the shape of the campaign plan
reflects the strategy which reflects the politics. The Coalition wants a
quick decisive defeat (but does not want to put boots on the ground) because
that is our (Western) politics. The Sunni tribes remain unsure as to who is
the biggest threat - ISIL or Baghdad and the Government of Iraq is happy to
play for time because: a political solution has not been identified, there
is no imperative to reach a political solution and Baghdad is secure. ISIL
meanwhile needs to ensure that the narrative of statehood (and ideally the
narrative of expansion) remains credible and so continues with its balloon
strategy (contract where squeezed but expand where not squeezed).

Mosul will fall eventually but in a time and manner that is appropriate to
the Government of Iraq. At the moment I think that time is some way away and
the manner will be much like that of Tikrit; methodical and with heavy use
of Fires. It is difficult to see Raqqah falling anytime soon because there
is no-one to take it. It lies outside the traditional Kurdish zone of
influence, Assad is too weak to take it and the Syrian Opposition is too
fractured (and focused on Assad) to take it.

Mark Pyruz

Sat, 08/15/2015 - 3:00am

According to Iraqi sources, the limiting factor at Ramadi and Fallujah are civilian populace held in place by ISIL forces. In this, ISIL are somewhat similar to Stalin and NKVD.

Iraqi forces appear to have invested or at least attempted to invest these cities.

So far, it appears ISIL SVBIED and VBIED campaign against Diyala has not forced PMF to reposition away from these investitures, towards effectively garrisoning that province.

I have to say, I find both Iraqi military and ISIL to be playing checkers, and not chess. Sophistication is not a hallmark of this conflict.