As a result of both the U.S.-led coalition air campaign and of recent fighting by the Iraqi army and Shia militias, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIS) territorial expansion in Iraq has been halted but not reversed. Iraqi forces are currently battling to take back the strategic city of Ramadi, which was lost over the summer to ISIS. President Obama has signaled a willingness to commit Apache helicopters and Special Operations advisers to assist the Iraqi army in retaking the city. He should agree to do so, and additionally should increase U.S. support for both Baghdad and the moderate Syrian opposition if ISIS is to be defeated. While escalation will entail various costs, the United States must act soon to balance Russia’s intensified operations in the region and to bolster the Iraqi army.
The current offensive in Ramadi has slowed to a crawl because of fierce resistance from ISIS and the limitations of the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army is particularly ill-equipped to deal with ISIS defensive measures, such as booby-trapped structures and roadside bombs, and lacks a sufficient number of specialized explosive-clearing teams. Deploying more U.S. assets, including battlefield expertise and airpower, to supplement these local capabilities could prove decisive in defeating ISIS. Increased mobility and access to air support would allow Iraqi forces to fully besiege Ramadi, cutting off ISIS reinforcements from nearby Fallujah. More ground units would then be free to participate in a concentrated and sustained attack on the city. A victory in Ramadi, especially if the battle is won by the Iraqi regular army rather than by controversial and non-state Shia militias, would improve the political position of the Baghdad government. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi desperately needs a victory after government forces were routed from Ramadi in May.
Thus far, Shia militias are not taking part in frontline operations. Their presence could prove counterproductive in Ramadi, which is located in the heart of Sunni-dominated Anbar Province. With support from Iran’s Quds Force, Shia militias have been more successful in combating ISIS than the Iraqi military. For instance, the militias were critical in the Battle of Tikrit. The Shia militias, however, reportedly engaged in sectarian atrocities during and after this important battle, and their involvement in the fight against ISIS continues to be controversial.
Despite concerns about the Shia militias’ humanitarian records, Prime Minister Abadi will face increasing pressure by Shia groups, such as the Badr Brigade and his own Interior Ministry, which has close ties to Iran, to rely upon these paramilitary forces if his government cannot show progress on the ground in Ramadi. Further deploying the militias to Ramadi, however, could further sectarianize Iraqi politics and exacerbate the underlying problems that gave rise to ISIS in the first place. Placing the regular army at the forefront of the fighting is all the more important after Russia announced an intelligence sharing arrangement with Iraq, Iran, and Syria to combat the Islamic State.
Another potential objection to an escalation of U.S. engagement in anti-ISIS efforts is the fact that Iraqi forces may not take advantage of the openings provided by additional U.S. support. U.S. military commanders have been critical of their Iraqi counterparts during the coalition’s months-long air campaign, complaining that Iraqi forces often fail to follow airstrikes with ground assaults to secure territorial gains. Further, the Apache helicopters that President Obama may be willing to commit to Iraq are more vulnerable to ground attack than jet aircraft, and these proposals would put U.S. personnel at greater risk of being killed or captured.
Despite the potential costs of escalation, the United States must seize the initiative against ISIS if it hopes to sway the balance of forces and prevent its adversaries from directing events on the ground. This issue is all the more urgent since Russia escalated its support for the Assad regime and began to bring more of its own weaponry into Syria. Russian troops have reportedly engaged in combat operations in the embattled state, and Russian cargo aircraft, a dozen Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack planes, and armored vehicles have been deployed at an air base south of Latakia. David Petraeus testified that, “Russia’s recent military escalation in Syria is a further reminder that when the U.S. does not take the initiative, others will fill the vacuum — often in ways that are harmful to our interests.”
For instance, Russia’s increased presence in Syria eliminates the possibility of installing no-fly zones in parts of the country. Such zones could have been used to remove Assad’s air superiority and end his use of indiscriminate barrel bombs on civilian populations. Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the supreme allied commander for Europe, recently argued that Russian will only target the Islamic State “in order to legitimize their approach to Syria.” Russia’s more immediate goals include propping up the Assad government, expanding its military presence in the Middle East, and directing attention away from Ukraine.
The United States must increase its military involvement in Iraq and Syria soon if it is to reverse the expansion of ISIS and maintain a favorable balance of power in the Middle East. The President should authorize additional military support to the Iraqi army as it fights to recapture Ramadi. In addition, he should countenance a significant increase in U.S. backing to the Syrian opposition. While this policy would be risky, Russia’s recent buildup in Syria indicates a willingness by Moscow to act if the United States remains on the sidelines. The United States has a chance now to set back ISIS, and the country must not pass on the opportunity.
Michael Casey is a security policy studies student at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. He studies national security policy and process as well as transnational threats.