U.S. military officials insisted Friday that ISIS was on the “defensive”—even as the self-proclaimed Islamic State was taking over the key Iraqi city of Ramadi.
Worse than that, the Pentagon repeatedly asserted that its nine-month U.S.-led airstrike campaign was weakening ISIS, even as the terror group maintained enough fighters to battle for the central oil-rich Iraqi city of Baiji, retained control of the second-largest city of Mosul, and launched this new offensive in Ramadi. The city was the site of 165 U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the last month in what appeared to be a failed bid to wrest control of the city out of ISIS hands. As Ramadi fell into ISIS hands, more strikes rained down on the city Friday night.
No wonder these officials had trouble articulating how, exactly, the terror group was playing defense.
As Marine Corps Brigadier General Thomas D. Weidley—the chief of staff for the task force fighting ISIS—was making his comments to the Pentagon, ISIS forces were storming government buildings in central Ramadi. Reports emerged that they were assassinating Sunni residents suspected of working with the mostly Shiite government or with the Americans in previous conflicts. According to these reports, the black ISIS flag flew over the governor’s compound.
Sheikh Omar Shihan al-Alwani, a tribal leader whose men have been fighting ISIS there, told The New York Times that more than a dozen families had been killed in Ramadi, as well as another 50 policemen and tribal fighters. The chairman of the Anbar Provincial Council, Sabah Karhut, told the paper Friday that Ramadi “has fallen, militarily” to the Islamic State offensive.
“What happened in Ramadi today was because of a very well planned operation launched by ISIS, and the lack of a clear strategy by the government, which led to the security collapse,” Karhut told the paper.
Weidley called the ISIS attack on Ramadi a “somewhat complex attack.” According to local reports on the ground, ISIS fighters were blasting their arrival on loudspeakers inside overrun government buildings, all while not allowing residents to leave. There were also reports of ISIS fighters moving in armored equipment to tear down Iraqi government barricades.
Regardless, Weidley said repeatedly that ISIS is on the “defensive” as the group has only sustained “episodic temporary success.”
Defense officials have said in the past that Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province, is not important to the overall campaign against ISIS. Most notably, Army General Martin Dempsey told reporters in April that the city was not significant to the caliphate, saying: “I would much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won’t be the end of a campaign should it fall.”
The American generals’ argument is that the western city is not on a key route that will root out ISIS or holds any valued resources. For the Iraqi government, however, the city’s proximity to Baghdad—80 miles west—made it key to the nation’s security.
Equally important, experts noted, was that many of the Sunnis of Ramadi were willing to join the mostly Shiite government in Baghdad. The U.S. has repeatedly said its strategy hinges on just that: Sunnis enlisting Iraqi security forces and embracing the central government. If ISIS is now killing those Sunnis collaborating with Baghdad, it will likely dissuade others from doing the same.
“One of our hopes, given the involvement in Iranian militias, is Sunni tribal engagement. As Ramadi falls that really dashes those hopes in any meaningful way. The Sunni tribes that are directly affected by this will no doubt feel betrayed,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
To be sure, ISIS has sustained major losses, proving unable to handle a sustained military fight against them. The group could not take over the northern Syrian city of Kobani and six weeks ago lost control of the central Iraqi city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. And Weidley noted the group could no longer gather in large conventional military-like formations or send out well-trained fighters.
In the last two months, there have been reports of infighting within the group and that its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been injured. But that the attack on Ramadi came just one day after al-Baghdadi released a 34-minute audio message calling on fighters to join ISIS suggested a well-coordinated effort by the group to time its message and military campaign.
“I think the overall trajectory is not good for the caliphate. ISIS is losing more than they are winning,” Gartenstein-Ross said.
But losing territory and having to adapt tactics is not the same as being on the defensive, experts noted. That ISIS can launch an offensive, even as the U.S.-led coalition has launched scores of airstrikes in Ramadi in the last month, only speaks to the group’s resiliency and the Iraqi government force’s frailty.
And Iraqi officials have also proven weak. Weidley noted, for example, that residents had not moved back into Tikrit because government officials could not restore services or eliminate all the unexploded ordnance.
In addition to Ramadi, ISIS forces continue to fight for control of the city of Baiji, where an oil refinery sits. They still hold Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Iraqi troops so far have been unable to break the stalemate in Baiji and unwilling to launch an offensive in Mosul.
But Weidley said events Friday were not pivotal.
Weidley added, “We’ve seen similar attacks in Ramadi over the last several months,” in which Iraqi forces and coalition airstrikes pushed them back.
It was hardly the image of a terror group on the run.