After the May ISIS siege on Ramadi that captured the regional capital of Iraq’s largest province, US defense secretary Ash Carter blamed a “lack of will” within the Iraqi military for the significant loss. Among the soldiers who retreated from Ramadi, there was significant frustration and disillusionment with the Iraqi military leadership which prompted questions of whether the city was sold out to ISIS. Since the fall of Ramadi, more local Sunni fighters and Shia militias have joined the fight, the latter in dramatically increased numbers.
More than 55,000 left Ramadi upon the ISIS takeover according to the UN Population Fund, the majority of which came to Baghdad, 75 miles to the east of the Anbar capital. In response to the loss, Iranian Quds Force leader Major General Qassem Soleimani stated, “Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon, nobody is present except Iran.” Soleimani went on to criticize the US as well as the governments of Iraq and Syria for the recent gains by ISIS.
Analysts of the conflicts have noted recent developments have significantly changed the long term options for both Iraq and Syria. Thomas Ricks of Foreign Policy reiterated that the Obama administration’s goal to eradicate ISIS is unachievable because, “you cannot destroy a movement.” Ricks went on to point out the logistical and military drawbacks that have plagued the military response to ISIS and proclaimed, “If our strategy is containment, we should admit it; and the president must be prepared to explain to the American people the risks involved.” While Ricks argues containment would foster a sanctuary comparable to Bin Laden’s Afghanistan prior to 9/11, his colleague Stephen M. Walt defends containment as the best possible option when coupled with working with regional actors like Saudi, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran. Anthony Cordesman of CSIS expands on the latter, noting “Just as it is impossible to have an Iraq strategy without a Syria strategy, it is impossible to have an Iraq strategy without an Iran strategy.”
The largest recent development in the fight against ISIS involves the increasing role of Turkey in combating the radical jihadist group along its border. An agreement between the US in Turkey has spurred perhaps the greatest increase in Turkish involvement since the inception of the conflict. The goal of the new coordination is to create a “ISIS-free zone” within Syria on the Turkish border from which more moderate groups may operate and refugee Syrians may find safety. Turkey’s increased vigilance against ISIS comes after 32 were killed in a suicide bombing attack in the Turkish border town of Suruc. Turkey has additionally allowed US aircraft to utilize Turkish air force bases to stage strikes for the first time. Additional details are being worked out between the Turks and Americans in an ongoing strategic dialogue.
The dark side of the increased Turkish military activity is that it has reignited their conflict with the Kurds, as a two year cease-fire agreement is already deteriorating between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Many have questioned Turkey’s newfound motivation to combating ISIS as a cover for renewing their offensive against Kurdish militant groups. Turkey has long been accused of not taking on the ISIS threat as directly as it should, but its evolving position will show in due course the regional power’s objectives. Kurdish-led fighting units known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria have made stunning gains against ISIS near their headquarters in Raqqa, recapturing the critical Liwa 93 base and more recently together with Syrian government units they overtook significant areas in and around the city of Hassakeh. There are significant differences between the PKK and YPG, though it is clear more Turkish involvement will make Kurds across both countries a little uneasy.
Thus, the balancing act the US has been playing between the Turks and Kurds in the fight against ISIS is going to become ever more complicated. US and its NATO allies, including Turkey, need to prioritize the campaign against ISIS over the Turkish feud with Kurdish militant groups. Many Kurdish units have achieved great successes against ISIS, and if Turkey is to focus too much on escalating the tensions with them then the only beneficiary would be ISIS and other extremist groups. Now more than ever, the involvement of neighboring regional actors will play a larger role in the fate of Iraq and Syria.