What the liberation of Ramadi means for Iraq, Iran, and the U.S.

This week’s liberation of Ramadi was a victory for Iraq and the United States, but a modest one. Both of those facts are key to understanding what the fall of Ramadi might mean for the future of Iraq and the course of the U.S. campaign there.

Not exactly the D-Day landings

The liberation of Ramadi took seven months to engineer despite enormous advantages on the part of the Iraqi security forces (ISF). For months, Ramadi had been held by no more than 1,000 Da’esh fighters—and probably really only a few hundred, especially during the past month or more. Against this, the ISF had concentrated roughly 10,000 troops with armor and heavy artillery. That’s a 10:1 or even 20:1 force-to-force ratio, which should produce a decisive defeat even against a heavily-entrenched adversary defending an urban-rubble position. 

And while Da’esh fighters have shown themselves to be highly motivated, they have typically proven only modestly more capable than their Arab and Kurdish counterparts. Moreover, the ISF was backed by American air power and supported by American intelligence and advisers. Indeed, a number of the brigades that participated in the operation had been trained and equipped by the U.S.-led coalition (the so-called “Mosul Counterattack Brigades”), and these did perform notably better than Iraqi Army brigades that hadn’t.

[T]he 7-month siege was a product of the ongoing dysfunctions of the Iraqi military command and control structure, and Iraqi politics more generally.

Ultimately, the 7-month siege was a product of the ongoing dysfunctions of the Iraqi military command and control structure, and Iraqi politics more generally. Although Nouri al-Maliki is long gone as Iraq’s commander-in-chief, his politicization of the military lingers. Some incompetent, political hacks have been removed from senior Iraqi command positions but others remain. Moreover, the complex command relationships that Maliki established (in imitation of Saddam and other Arab dictators) to centralize decision-making in his office persists. Throughout the siege of Ramadi, different units participating in the battle reported to different commanders—some of whom refused to cooperate with one another, or even to release their forces to the control of another—paralyzing ISF operations for weeks at a time. 

Complicated friendships

Then there were the problems with the Sunnis. Despite an extremely cooperative governor of Anbar province, it took a very long time to train the hundreds of Sunni tribesmen who participated in the operation. 

It was essential to put a Sunni face on the retaking of an overwhelmingly Sunni town, as well as have security personnel whom the Sunni populace would accept and trust. Iraqis haven’t forgotten the human rights abuses that Shiite militiamen committed after the fall of Tikrit, an event known (and embellished) throughout the Sunni community and that had created real frictions over who would retake and secure Ramadi. These delays are essentially all attributable to the near-total absence of any meaningful process of national reconciliation between the Sunni and Shiite leaders, despite a widespread desire for such among most of the key leaders on both sides.

The last piece of the frozen puzzle was Iran, or more properly, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia leaders. Both the Sunni leaders and the United States made clear to the Iraqi government that neither would support the retaking of Ramadi if Iranian-backed formations of the Shiite militias (the Hashd ash-Shaabi) participated because of the potential for massacres and other actions that would further alienate Iraq’s Sunni community from the central government. Not surprisingly, that did not sit well with many of the leaders of the Hashd, particularly those most-closely tied to Iran such as Hady al-Ameri, Qais al-Ghazali and Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis. It probably also irked Tehran, although Iranian interests are more complex than those of their allies in Iraq. 

In any event, the Iranian-allied Hashd leaders worked hard to prevent the liberation of Ramadi without them. In particular, they threatened Iraqi generals with physical harm—to them or their families—bribed others, and impeded the movement of their forces however they could. Again, there are reports that the Iranians themselves took a hand in this, wanting to ensure at the very least that there was no military success in Iraq for which they could not claim credit.

The American linchpin

Given this array of impediments, how is it that Ramadi was liberated? To be blunt, the United States made it happen. 

For months, the United States had been hammering on the Iraqis to try to get them to retake the city. And when the Iraqis did nothing, we would just demand again, slower and louder than the last time. Naturally, it did not work.

Iraq needs a lot more than just American haranguing. Endlessly pointing out to the Iraqis that doing something is in their best interests (as we see them) is fruitless. The United States created a power vacuum in 2003 and then recreated it in 2011. That, coupled with Iraq’s pernicious political culture, means that individual Iraqis will not take collective action—no matter how beneficial it would be for them to do so—unless each one can be assured of his or her security and benefits from doing so. 

Iraq needs a lot more than just American haranguing.

That is why the role of the United States is so crucial. The United States can serve as mediator, buffer, and disburser of benefits among the different Iraqi factions, as it did from 2007 to 2009 and again briefly in 2014. That is the critical missing part to get the Iraqi political machine clunking into action. It is difficult and time-consuming, and it is never pretty—even when it works—but it can work and typically does. 

Thus, what changed in Iraq in the past 2 to 3 months was that the United States not only kept the pressure on Iraq to move against Ramadi, but also provided the resources to do so. The United States increased its air and intelligence assets (modestly, but noticeably in certain categories) and provided new training and equipment (particularly in combat breaching operations). That made all the difference. It not only gave some Iraqi units the confidence to take bolder action, of far greater importance, the commitment of additional U.S. resources gave various Iraqi political and military leaders the confidence to take bolder action in the face of the obstacles created by Iraq’s twisted politics and the deliberate obstructionism of Iran’s principal Iraqi allies.. 

So what Ramadi demonstrates yet again is that the Iraqis are capable of doing what we want and need them to (and which most of them want to do as well). But they simply cannot do so without American assistance, and that assistance has to include effort and resources, not just nagging. 

Enter: Iran

Just as Ramadi was a modest victory for the United States, so it was a modest defeat for Iran. 

That said, however, I don’t want to reinforce the common narrative that the struggle for Iraq is a zero sum game between Washington and Tehran. There is a struggle for influence between them. And it is often the case that what is good for Iran is bad for the United States, and vice versa. However, it is not the case that anything that is bad for Iran is good for the United States and vice versa. The two countries have both interests in common and interests that are diametrically opposed. That’s what makes it so complex, but also creates the potential for progress and even resolution of the Iraqi civil war.

In the case of Ramadi, the fact that the Iranian-backed Hashd were largely kept out of the (eventually) successful operation was a modest victory for the United States and a modest defeat for Iran for three reasons. 

  1. Most directly, it reinforced the narrative that began at Tikrit that the ISF, backed by the United States, were adequate on their own to liberate Sunni cities. So far, the Iranian-backed Hashd has shown a capability to “liberate” ethnically mixed terrain from Da’esh, notably Jurf ash-Shukhur southwest of Baghdad, and Diyala province northeast of it. (And both were only “liberated” through vicious campaigns of ethnic cleansing to eliminate the Sunni components of the population). They have also demonstrated a capacity to defend territory against Da’esh assaults (with the fall of Ramadi in May calling into question whether the American-backed ISF could say the same).
  2. It bolstered the standing of the pro-American leaders of the ISF and the Iraqi government, most notably including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. In the Iraqi political arena, being “pro-American” simply means being willing to accept help from the United States (in addition to help from other countries, most notably Iran). 
  3. The other side of the coin was also true, that the liberation of Ramadi has slightly weakened the position of Iran’s staunchest and most militant allies in Iraq, men like al-Ameri, al-Mohandis, and al-Ghazali. That too helps the United States and hurts Iran.

However, Ramadi should not be taken as evidence that progress in Iraq requires the United States to marginalize, exclude or even “defeat” Iran there, as if that were even possible.

Iran has always had a very broad and deep set of interests in Iraq. While Iran does not share all of America’s interests in Iraq, it does share some. Tehran has its dreams and wishes on the one hand, and its minimum necessities on the other. Over time, we have seen the Iranians shift among these priorities based on what they believed possible given their capabilities and circumstances in Iraq at the time. At various points, the Iranians have done things that were very much in our interests because they were also in Iran’s, contradicting the perspective that the two have diametrically opposed interests and their competition is zero-sum. Both Iran and the United States urged Iraqi Shiites to participate in the U.S.-engineered democratic process in Iraq between 2003 and 2005. Both urged Maliki to stop provoking and alienating the Sunnis in 2012 and 2013 for fear that he was driving the country to civil war. Today, both would like to see Iraq (or at least Arab Iraq) remain united under a democratic government in Baghdad (which would invariably be dominated by the Shiites) and both would like to see Da’esh obliterated.

Ramadi should not be taken as evidence that progress in Iraq requires the United States to marginalize, exclude or even “defeat” Iran there, as if that were even possible.

It is also the case that Iran’s interests are not identical to those of its closest allies in Iraq. At the most basic level, Iran would like to see a stable, unified, Shiite-dominated Iraq. Its closest allies—again, men like al-Ameri, al-Ghazali, and al-Muhandis—want to dominate Iraq, and that will be very difficult if Iraq is stable or unified (a core interest of Tehran’s). The vast majority of Iraqis, including critical Shiite powerbrokers like Ayatollah Sistani, Ammar al-Hakim of ISCI, and Muqtada as-Sadr dislike these men and would try to neuter them once the security threat that justifies their influence is gone. Likewise, Former Prime Minister Maliki—often seen as an important Iranian ally, despite his repeated defiance of Iran while he was prime minister—is in a similar position: he probably cannot regain executive power if Iraq’s civil war ends, Da’esh is evicted, and the Sunnis brought back into government. At the very least, the Sunnis would never accept him as prime minister again. The best evidence is that Iran uses all of these Iraqis to advance its interests: as leverage when things are going well, as “Plan Bs” if things are going badly. 

Overlapping endgames?

That brings us back to Ramadi. Ramadi was unquestionably a defeat for the likes of al-Ameri, al-Ghazali, al-Muhandis and probably even Maliki. It was a defeat for Iran too, but a lesser defeat and in different ways. For Iran’s Iraqi allies, Ramadi represents an alternative path forward for Iraq, one in which their services—as the defenders of a militant Shiite populace against a ravening Sunni threat—are no longer needed because the ISF with American-backing can do the job. For Iran, that may smart in the near term, but it may also be perfectly acceptable as Tehran takes the longer view. 

If the ISF and the Americans reunify Iraq, bring the Sunnis back into the fold, stabilize the country and drive Da’esh out of Iraq, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Iran. It’s mostly a good thing. Yes, it would mean much greater American influence in Iraq than in 2014, but Iran would still retain enormous sway there. And Iran isn’t going anywhere, whereas the United States would eventually draw down its involvement in Iraq. In return, Iran would get an end to the Iraqi civil war, which was creating tremendous problems for Iran and Iranian society. It would also get the resurrection of a unified, Shiite-dominated government likely to have at least decent, if not close, ties to Iran. 

[T]he lesson of Ramadi is that that future will never come to be without a lot more American help.

That’s a scenario that ought to be acceptable to the United States, too. It meets virtually all of our needs and interests. Ideally, the Iraqi government would lean more toward Washington than Tehran, but that’s a struggle—the struggle for political influence in Iraq—worth having, and one infinitely better than the situation in Iraq today. 

But the lesson of Ramadi is that that future will never come to be without a lot more American help. President Obama’s refrain that “Americans shouldn’t do for Iraqis what Iraqis should do for themselves,” is at best a tautology, and therefore no guide for policy. The truth is that, as the liberation of Ramadi demonstrated, there are things that we need the Iraqis to do, that they want to do, and that they can do, but only—only—with our assistance.