by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The American-led air campaign over Iraq has a pattern — and patterns change. What the Pentagon sees as the most important part of the battlefield is what it’ll bomb the most. As the lines shift, so do the air strikes.
What we’ve seen this month is a radical shift in the air campaign away from the oil refinery of Beiji — and the Kurdish ground war in northern Iraq to a lesser extent — to Ramadi.
Which makes sense. Iraqi forces defending Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, collapsed in the face of a massive Islamic State assault on May 17. The militant group took the city in a lightning assault after a months-long siege, and has carried out summary executions. Around 55,000 civilians have fled.
But before the collapse, the U.S. didn’t view Ramadi as very important. From March 1 to the city’s fall, the coalition carried out 17 air strikes on Islamic State in Ramadi, according to Pentagon news releases. In nearby Fallujah, the coalition launched 26 strikes.
Moving to northern Iraq, the coalition bombed Islamic State 34 times in Mosul, 14 times in Tal Afar and 13 times in Sinjar during the same period. These are areas contested between Islamic State and Kurdish fighters.
But in Beiji, the coalition carried out 57 air strikes — sometimes as many as eight per day. The central Iraqi city of Beiji contains a strategic oil refinery which produced as much as one-third of Iraq’s oil before the war.
But after the fall of Ramadi … things changed. Since May 17, air strikes in Beiji plummeted to 18, and rose to 29 in Ramadi — and it’s still rising. There are now more air strikes happening in Ramadi than anywhere else in Iraq.
Air strikes also fell in Mosul and Fallujah. The air strikes have risen slightly in Sinjar and Tal Afar — again in the north. The largest shift, however, has been away from Beiji and to Ramadi.
It’s an interesting fact — considering that the Pentagon and the White House have downplayed Ramadi’s loss. Pres. Barack Obama characterized it as a “tactical setback.” For his part, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter blamed the Iraqi military for the loss, suggesting they don’t have enough guts to fight.
Iraqi forces in Ramadi “were not outnumbered,” Carter told CNN. “In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight, they withdrew from the site, and that says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.”
But this is misleading. The U.S. is now throwing a lot of firepower in Ramadi’s direction. Rather, it seems Iraq and the U.S.-led coalition prioritized taking back Beiji — and its massive oil refinery — than defending Ramadi.
In Beiji, the strikes translated into some success. Iraqi troops have made gains there in recent weeks, and have opened a road directly into the refinery. But the battle is far from over, and there are reports Islamic State has set parts of the refinery ablaze.
The problem is that this strategy could have left Ramadi vulnerable. Especially since Iraq doesn’t have enough ground troops to hold everything without air support.
Baghdad can mass troops and Shia militia fighters — and go on the offensive — but it leaves itself open to Islamic State counter-attacks elsewhere.
To see how this looks, it’s highly worth reading Joel Wing, a researcher who posts frequent and detailed updates on the fighting at his blog Musings on Iraq. “Whenever the area is attacked, [Iraqi] reinforcements are sent in, but they then withdraw allowing IS to move back in,” Wing wrote. “This has occurred throughout the country again and again.”
As Wing noted, the battle for Ramadi is just one part of a war that stretches from Sinjar in the north to the cities of Anbar province in west-central Iraq. There’s even fighting in southern Iraq between tribal and criminal organizations that don’t have anything to do with Islamic State, but this is poorly reported.
The Iraqi army frequently outnumbers Islamic State when they meet on the battlefield. But it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot.
Now contrast this with Islamic State’s battle tactics. The terror group doesn’t care that much about defending territory. It doesn’t like concentrating large numbers of its numerically-inferior fighters, either.
Instead, when the militants take territory, they lay booby-traps and leave behind snipers to harass and delay Iraqi counter-attacks. The tactics result in bloody losses for the Iraqi troops, further demoralizing them.
“The Islamic State has not shown a tendency to fight ‘last stand’ defensive actions,” CTC Sentinel, West Point’s counter-terrorism newsletter noted. “Snipers, mobile shooter teams, and improvised minefields made of crude canister IEDs and explosive-filled houses are more than sufficient to slow, but not stop, an advancing force — populated areas are denied rather than actually defended.”
There’s some indication this process is already underway in Ramadi, where Islamic State militants are building trenches. In Beiji, the militants have set parts of the refinery on fire. “ISIL have rigged [Beiji] with booby trapped trenches, sand barracks and road side bombs,” Iraqi police Col. Maan Al Sa’eedi told Al Jazeera.
Freeing up its forces, Islamic State then attacks in other directions. The group has “an almost pathological need to take the initiative and attack the enemy,” CTC Sentinel noted.
As Iraqi forces bog down, Islamic State redeploys its troops where Iraq is weak, such as Ramadi. This involved a huge effort with as many as 30 suicide car bombs coordinated to blow up key Iraqi positions, according to Wing.
As Iraqi troops moved to reinforce Ramadi from the east, militants ambushed and stopped them.
Air strikes won’t win the war for Iraq — that’s going to happen on the ground. But air strikes can blunt these counter-attacks, since Islamic State must go on the move and expose itself to the skies. But that apparently didn’t happen when Ramadi fell.