The Islamic State (ISIS) has captured Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar Province, reportedly "terrifying" Iraqi officials who now foresee a "tsunami of international terror." It is an important achievement for the terrorist group aimed at pre-empting a potential Sunni tribal uprising.
The Sunni tribes in Anbar Province were critical to the success of the 2007 "surge" that ousted the Islamic State's predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The deterioration in the relationship between these tribes and the central Iraqi government was likewise critical to the terrorists' comeback in Iraq.
The Islamic State remembered these lessons and acted quickly as the Iraqi government began training tribal fighters and the U.S. defense budget allotted $179 million to Kurdish and Sunni tribal forces. The U.S. forgot these lessons and has long rejected Sunni and Kurdish pleas for direct aid to fight the Islamic State.
The Obama Administration is now planning to change course and directly arm and train the Iraqi Sunni tribes after the fall of Ramadi. The White House previously chose to work only through the central Iraqi government that has given the Kurds and Sunnis inadequate support.
A delegation of 11 Sunni tribal leaders, including Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, the President of the Anbar Awakening Council, flew to the U.S. on January 18 to plead for direct assistance. Former President George W. Bush called Abu Risha and listened to his complaints for 20 minutes and offered to help. Administration officials were less willing. One tribal official said, "I wouldn't call it the 'cold shoulder,' but it certainly was a cool one."
The Obama Administration told them that it would only work through the elected central government. Its viewpoint was that working with forces outside the government's authority undermines the Iraqi leadership and threatens the country's unity.
That standpoint ignores what was learned after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Nothing threatens Iraq's unity and the government's authority more than instability. Direct U.S. aid to the Sunni tribes helped save Iraq from disintegration into sectarian enclaves ruled by terrorists and militias.
The Islamic State struck Ramadi during a sandstorm that delayed American air support. Former U.S. Central Command advisor Ali Khedery says that a Kurdish member of parliament informed him that 6,000 Iraqi Security Forces fled when faced with a mere 150 Islamic State fighters. About 500 Iraqi security personnel and civilians died in two days. The Iraqi officials spoke straight forwardly and admitted that the current strategy is failing.
The Pentagon says it has finished training about 7,000 Iraqi Security Forces and another 3-4,000 are in the process of training, but training won't solve the problem of collapsing Iraqi forces. The U.S. trained the Iraqis from 2003 until the withdrawal in 2011. The strategy of waiting for the Iraqi security forces to become strong enough to stabilize the country is the same strategy that failed before the surge.
Iraqi personnel flee because they don't want to die for a lost cause or to fight for a replacement worse than the Islamic State.
The Iraqi Security Forces face a fundamental disadvantage when battling the Islamic State: They want to live and their enemies want to die. This disadvantage is further compounded by a lack of confidence. If given the choice to die fighting in a losing battle or to flee and perhaps regroup later with better chances of victory, they will choose the latter.
An Anbar official placed the blame on the Iraqi government, telling CNN, "If 10% of the government's promises had been implemented, Ramadi would still in our hands and the Islamic State wouldn't dare to be anywhere near the city."
Iraqi Sunnis are faced with a terrible choice. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias are often nicknamed "Shiite ISIS" because their crimes are comparable to ISIS but are less known by the West because they aren't broadcasted. However, the Anbar Provincial Council is officially welcoming them now out of desperation and perhaps an awareness that their opposition will be ignored anyway.
The Shiite militias should be expected to mistreat the local Sunnis the second after the Islamic State is expelled or even during the fighting. Tribal support is far from unanimous. The son of the largest tribe's leader is in the U.S. asking for support right now and bluntly warned that sending the Shiite militias into Anbar Province "will cause a civil war."
The New York Times has noticed the change in American attitude towards the Shiite militias. Pentagon spokesperson Col. Steve Warren said, "As long as they're controlled by the central Iraqi government, there's a place for them." Yet, only two months ago, Central Command Commander General Austin said, "I will not—and I hope we will never—coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias."
The U.S. must correct its strategy by sidelining Iranian-backed militias and terrorists, leveraging influence with the Iraqi government and significantly increasing assistance to the Anbar tribes, Kurds, Iraqi government and to the persecuted Christian minority that is forming its own self-defense force.
Recent history has shown that the Iraqi government will choose the U.S. over Iran if compelled.
In March, the U.S. withheld support to Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic State in Tikrit because of the involvement of Iranian-backed militias and the Revolutionary Guards Corps. The Iranian proxies stalled and could move no further, displaying the value of U.S. air support. The Iraqis chose America and the Iranians were removed from the battle. U.S. aid delivered the victory that the Iranians could not.
The Iraqis had been asking for U.S. for more help including possibly advisors on the ground since October 2013. By March 2014, the Iraqis were asking for airstrikes on the Islamic State. The Islamic State blitz into Iraq began in June.
The Iraqi ambassador complained that the U.S. had denied requests for help including Apache helicopter sales, thereby putting Iraq "in an uncomfortable position in seeking support from whoever is available on the ground." He emphasized that the "U.S. is our strategic partner of choice."
Iran opposed the return of U.S. soldiers on the ground in Iraq as advisors. The Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threatened to attack the advisors and two other Iranian-backed militias also forcefully opposed U.S. involvement. The Iraqi government went ahead anyway.
Even now, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is in Russia and talking to China and Iran about delivering arms that the U.S. refuses to provide.
The U.S. needs to give the Iraqi government a clear choice: Iran or us.
The Iraqi government should be put on notice. If it is willing to restrain the Shiite militias and work with us to disband them, then we will provide all necessary aid. We will help negotiate with the Sunni tribes so their local forces operate within a national framework.
If the Iraqi government chooses Iran, then we will cut our aid and redirect it towards our Sunni, Kurdish and Christian partners while maintaining contact with friendly Shiites. We will not act as the air force for Iranian proxies. If necessary, we will talk about a role for the forthcoming Arab force led by Egypt to replace yours.
It is positive news that the Obama Administration is reversing its stance and will directly help the Sunni tribes, but the anti- Islamic State strategy requires an anti-Iran strategy.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.