by Wayne White
The recapture of most of the Iraqi city of Ramadi is good news, especially since Iraq Army units backed by Sunni Arab tribesmen pulled it off without abusive Shi’a militias. This victory, however, was tarnished by the extensive destruction that befell the city in the course of its “liberation.” There may be a way to reduce this sort of collateral damage in the future, but can Iraq’s Shi’a-dominated government, so leery of the country’s Sunni Arabs, offer another way forward?
Iraqi General Ahmad al-Belawi estimated last week that over half of Ramadi’s buildings, public and private, had been destroyed. The worst destruction reportedly was caused by Coalition air strikes (called in by Iraqi forces in most cases). The Paris-based Arab Reform Initiative’s Lina Khatib feared that if this military method were applied elsewhere “the scale of damage would be immense.”
She is correct. In a worst-case scenario, concentrated airstrikes in support of Iraqi ground forces retaking each locale would rubblize the bulk of Iraq’s Sunni Arab urban areas wrested from Islamic State control. Also, there is the damage caused by intense urban combat involving Islamic State forces’ mines, explosives, and suicide vehicles plus the destruction laid down by the artillery, mortars, armored vehicles, and grenades of advancing Iraqi forces. Poignantly, the seizure by US forces of the neighboring Iraqi city of Fallujah from insurgents just over 10 years ago destroyed or damaged most of that city.
Victory at Ramadi could prepare the way for gradually reclaiming a number of cities and towns from the Islamic State. But to reduce the damage Sunni Arabs must play a far bigger role. The Islamic State relies on the assistance, loyalty, or neutrality of Sunni Arab tribes to hold onto its territory. With the fall of Ramadi—and lost Islamic State territory elsewhere in Iraq and Syria— many such tribes behind Islamic State lines must now suspect that the days are numbered for the realm of self-styled “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And an understandable fear could be arising among tribes hostile or distant from the government that their fate will not be a pleasant one upon the arrival of Iraqi forces. Other tribes still shunning the Islamic State to some degree doubtless yearn to see the last of it.
Under the circumstances, concessions and assurances from Baghdad ranging from amnesty to rewards for helping to oust the Islamic State from within would now be especially timely. The promise of a greater political role in Baghdad would be an even more attractive carrot. Another sweetener would be a very visible and humane program of assistance for the citizens of Ramadi in erecting better temporary housing and gaining access to medical aid. Perhaps most importantly, the government should not only promise reconstruction aid but work promptly toward that end to lend credibility to those promises.
Tribes will more likely take up arms against the Islamic State when they realize that towns and cities liberated more by internal revolt than full-blown outside military intervention suffer a lot less destruction and a lot fewer civilian casualties. Genuine readiness to cooperate must, however, trigger prompt Coalition aid, such as dropping munitions as was done for the Kurds in northern Syria. Once fighting commences behind Islamic State lines, the Coalition must provide air strikes in support of the rebels and the Iraqi Army must carve corridors through to link up with these fighters. For this to happen, however, Sunni Arab tribal fighters must be allowed a role bigger than the one they had in Ramadi, which was mostly to follow behind the army and occupy ground reclaimed by it. They must be given decent weapons too and placed in the front line.
The $64,000 question is whether Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi would be able to deliver on such concessions and assistance. Following the Islamic State’s sweep throughout Sunni Arab Iraq, Abadi refused to do so despite entreaties from Washington and other capitals. Unfortunately, Abadi remains surrounded by former cronies of his abusive anti-Sunni Arab predecessor Nouri al-Maliki who, by his intolerance, broken promises, and outright persecution, energized what was then the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant’s (ISIL) ability to secure an alliance with a host of angry Iraqi Sunni Arabs.
Unfortunately, some senior Shi’a powerbrokers in Baghdad might actually like the idea of devastating Sunni Arab population centers to further weaken that minority. Yet, if that is to be the fate of such communities, embittered Sunni Arabs would remain alienated from Baghdad and a source of future violence and unrest in one form or another. In the same way, the U.S.-led occupation under L. Paul Bremer and the Iraqi governments dominated by Iraq’s Shi’a—both blunderingly anti-Sunni in their inclinations—led to the violence of the insurgency, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and last year’s conquests by the Islamic State.
Tragic scenarios stemming from not acting to undermine the Islamic State from within make it imperative for the US-led coalition press Baghdad much harder than ever before to act. If not, a prolonged, damaging slugfest is inevitable between Iraqi and Islamic State forces, which will leave behind a politically dangerous trail of devastation and misery.