The Coming Battle for Ramadi; Checkers Versus Chess
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.