Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

From Ramadi to Palmyra

The advance of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq calls for an urgent rethink not only in Washington, but in Arab capitals, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Almost two weeks from today, 10 June, will mark the first sad anniversary of the capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul by the Islamic State (IS) group. One year ago, the whole world, and particularly Arab countries, appeared stunned by the quick fall of Iraq’s second-largest city

Mosul was home to one of the largest army garrisons in Iraq. Iraqi forces defending the city fled without firing a shot after their military commanders deserted the battlefield, leaving the troops to fend for themselves. Mosul is still occupied, though the Iraqi government has vowed to retake it.

The gravity of the situation in the Middle East today is that while the battle for Mosul is being planned, as we have been told, and while the air strikes of the international coalition against IS continue in both Iraq and Syria, last week saw deeply discouraging news from both Iraq and Syria.

It was news that made many analysts and observers still more sceptical about the effectiveness and credibility of the strategy of the international coalition against IS. The forces of this terrorist organisation succeeded in entering Ramadi, the main city in Al-Anbar, the largest province in Iraq.

Less than four days later, IS captured Palmyra, in Homs, Syria. Meanwhile, semi-official sources, Syrian and foreign, announced that with this military success, IS now controls 50 per cent of Syria’s territory.

For those of us who have been following developments in the military campaign against IS, as well as the fight against terrorism throughout the Arab world, this news is a great disappointment. It also raises the question of whether there is enough international, regional and Arab political will to fight on the two fronts.

If the answer is yes, then the next question is whether the present military strategy needs to change or not. The answer from a military point of view is in the affirmative.

On Sunday, 24 May, Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force, said, “Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon [IS], nobody is present except Iran.”

The following day, Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to the supreme leader in Iran, declared, “If the Iraqi government officially asks ... Iran ... to carry out any step that helps Iraq ... then Iran will meet this call.”

As far as the American point of view is concerned, the explanation for the fall of Ramadi is simple enough. According to US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, speaking in an interview with CNN on Sunday, 24 May, what happened “was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight.”

Carter added that Iraqi security forces must “have the will to fight and defend themselves against ISIL [IS] extremists.” Absent such a will, and coupled with the penetration of the Iraqi army by IS followers, it is difficult to imagine how the Iraqi army will liberate the territories controlled by IS inside Iraq.

On 19 May, US President Barack Obama met with members of the National Security Council to discuss the situation on the ground in Iraq after the fall of Ramadi. The US president reaffirmed US support for the Iraqi army, as well as local tribal fighters. The meeting welcomed the acceleration of the training and equipping of local tribes in coordination with the Anbar authorities.

It also welcomed Iraqi efforts to recruit new soldiers for the Iraqi army, and the training of local police. The most important point was the demand for a “consolidated plan” to retake Ramadi with “associated forces under Iraqi command.”

Whether the Iraqi army would be able on its own to develop such a consolidated plan and whether army units would have the will to confront IS on the battlefield remains to be seen. I doubt the ability of the Iraqi army to win the war against IS without substantial help from the Iranians, and more engagement on the part of the United States.

As a matter of fact, some American sources said in the wake of the fall of Ramadi that the US could reassess its strategy in Iraq. I think the military imbalance in favour of IS in both Iraq and Syria calls for such a reassessment.

And not only on the part of the US administration, but also on the part of some regional and Arab governments that have been supporting, directly or indirectly, terrorist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya, not to mention Egypt, to further their respective foreign policy agendas in the Middle East.

The targeting of a Shia mosque in Al-Qoutaif in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia during Friday prayers 22 May, claimed by IS, should, hopefully, be a wake-up call for those Arab governments.

What we really need to defeat all terrorist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda is a deep rethink of the strategies and objectives of all powers that have been vying for the last four and a half years to establish hegemony over the destiny of the peoples of the Middle East.

Otherwise, the scourge of terrorism will bring about the fall of various regimes in the region. Absent such a rethink, the threat will become an even more real and serious one.

The writer is former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister.

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