The Iraqi air force dropped thousands of leaflets on the Iraqi city of Ramadi yesterday, warning of airstrikes as part of the army’s attempts to reclaim the city. The leaflets told residents to leave Ramadi through a safe zone that had been created southeast of the city near al-Humayrah. Ramadi is the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, the main province of Iraqi Sunnis, and was captured by Islamic State forces back in May. Since then, the government has been trying to retake the city, but its efforts have constantly been stalled as a result of arguments between the Shia-dominated Iraqi army and Shiite militias, as well as an inability to dislodge IS from its positions, which the group has been fortifying for months. It appears now that Iraqi forces are finally in a position to take back Ramadi, but taking control of the city is little more than a morale boost at this point. Moreover, recovering the city is far easier than controlling it.
According to a U.S. army spokesman, there are somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 Iraqi troops involved in Ramadi operations facing approximately 600-1,000 IS fighters, though estimates on IS forces in Ramadi are as low as approximately 300. Even if IS only has around 300 fighters in Ramadi, it must also have many more supporters among the population to sustain operations this long, which is likely considering Anbar province is a productive recruiting ground for IS. The U.S. has stepped up its air support in Ramadi in the last week and, on Nov. 26, Iraqi army forces seized a strategic bridge in the city and cut off IS fighters from a key supply route on the Euphrates River. Though the government has claimed to be on the verge of taking Ramadi before, this time they have seized the necessary strategic points to stage a final assault against IS in the city.
Islamic State has suffered a string of military defeats on its periphery in recent weeks – Iraqi Kurdish forces retook the city of Sinjar in northern Iraq and, in Syria, pro-regime militias pushed IS back from Maheen and Hawareen southeast of Homs. If the Islamic State is indeed pushed out of Ramadi, it would amount to a hollow tactical victory, but not one that weakens IS’ strategic position. The group’s core territory is along the Euphrates River in Syria and Iraq, and its core territory is surrounded by desert areas through which it has proven capable of moving supplies and reinforcements. Small defeats on the periphery may be bad for morale and recruitment, both of which were boosted by IS victories earlier in the year, but they have little effect beyond that.
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces also seem to be going out of their way not just to warn Ramadi residents of the upcoming offensive but to do so publicly. The element of surprise is perhaps less necessary in a siege against a smaller force, but so blatantly announcing an upcoming military strike is still unusual. Therefore, this move reveals that Iraq and the U.S. are more interested in a PR victory that demonstrates U.S.-trained Iraqi forces are capable of defeating IS in battle. Losing Ramadi was an embarrassment for the Iraqi army and raised doubt as to whether it was a viable opponent in the fight against IS. In the U.S., Ramadi was given special attention because of the significant role American troops had in securing the city after the 2003 war. The reality is that it has taken over half a year for an Iraqi force that outnumbers IS 10-1 in Ramadi to get to this point. Even if they are successful in finally taking control over the entire city, this will not restrict IS’ military capabilities nor will this turn the Iraqi army into an overall more capable fighting force.