Almost a year after Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham's (ISIS) shock capture of Mosul, Iraq's second city, the black flags of the militants have been raised over Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province to the west of Baghdad, seat of Iraq's increasingly theoretical central government. Nobody talks of Mosul or recapturing it from ISIS. It is a forgotten city. Now it is all about the fall of Ramadi, the neighboring ancient Syrian city of Palmyra in central Syria and beyond - the Libyan city of Sirte, hometown of former leader Muammar Gaddafi. To the eyes of many in the region, the real strategic loss behind the ISIS seizure of two Sunni cities in Iraq and Syria in a week is the evaporation of any Sunni alternative to the militants. Although many leaders dismissed ISIS as vainglorious when it declared its cross-border caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq last summer, in its cohesion and purpose it is now seen by some - particularly Iraq's minority Sunnis - as more of a state than the Iraqi government it is fighting. "Simply put, ISIS is, or is on the verge of becoming, what it claims to be: a state," wrote David Kilcullen who was a key player in the U.S. 2007-08 Iraq troop 'surge' and a close observer of the rise of ISIS. He argues that unless Washington and its allies urgently change their counter-terrorism strategy the threat will only get worse. A coalition including the United States has been engaged in air strikes against ISIS last summer, yet the group's advance has continued. "ISIS fights like a state... It fields more than 25,000 fighters, including a hard core of ex-Baathist professionals and Qaeda veterans. It has a hierarchical unit organization and rank structure, populated by former regular officers of Saddam Hussein's military," added Kilcullen in the Australian Quarterly Essay.
ISIS already has the foundations of a state. It controls territory that includes major cities and covers a third each of Iraq and Syria; it has its own military and security force, a self-proclaimed administration that runs daily life - schools, government offices, utilities, hospitals, taxation and a judiciary system that follows sharia law. Its resources are vast, including oilfields, refineries and agricultural land. It operates more like a regular army with a recruiting network, training camps and a propaganda machine. In videos released by ISIS, its fighters and leader Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi confidently predict "the liberation of Anbar is the start of the liberation of Baghdad and Kerbala from the rawafed" - a derogatory term militants use to describe Shi'ites they condemn as infidels and idolaters. The militants, who intersperse these propaganda films with shots of their training, along with religious slogans, look young, fit, well-armed and clad in crisp new military uniforms - not the picture offered by their opponents.
The Shi'ite-dominated government in Baghdad last year appointed Haidar al-Abadi as prime minister to replace Nuri al-Maliki, whose policies were seen as authoritarian and sectarian by Iraq's alienated Sunni minority and Kurds, who run their own self-governing region in northern Iraq. Backed by the United States and by Iran, Abadi has tried to be more inclusive, but the collapse of the Iraqi army leaves him reliant for ground troops on Shi'ite militia, trained and influenced by Iran, which were a primary cause of the alienation of these minorities in the first place. This fits the ISIS narrative, that the fall of Ramadi shows that a Shi'ite majority government will never provide the arms that those Sunni tribes in Anbar would need if they were to oppose the militants, and therefore there is no alternative to ISIS.
As in Syria, furthermore, the striking battlefield successes of the militants are a powerful recruiting sergeant for disaffected Sunni youth. Hassan Hassan, a Middle East analyst and author of a book on ISIS, says the real significance of Ramadi is that its Sunni tribes had been resisting the self-declared caliphate ever since Mosul fell and even long before. U.S. and Iraqi talk of reviving the Sahwat (awakening) - the U.S.-armed Sunni militia that earlier defeated al-Qaida - is now probably too late. "The debate within the Sunni community in Iraq is now about those Sunnis in Ramadi who were cooperating with the government against Daesh (an Arabic acronym for ISIS) but have lost and were not capable to confront them. Other Sunni cities resisting Daesh will now think twice". "The moment has passed for the Americans to recruit Sunnis to fight the terrorist organization. This is past, it's gone, it's too late. Ramadi has been an idea for 10 years now and it collapsed", Hassan says. "That is a watershed moment for Iraq".
Tikrit, moreover, was no victory, Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote this week. "Tikrit was a campaign that failed to give Iraq's Sunnis the reassurance they needed that the central government would support them in resisting ISIS or following up an ISIS defeat with immediate efforts to secure Tikrit and allow its Sunni Arab population to return." Ramadi and Tikrit taken together, in that light do not cancel each other out so much as demonstrate that the Sunnis cannot depend for their security either on the United States or on forces loyal to Iran. With insufficient means of their own, that is driving them towards ISIS.
About the author
Research Associate at Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University