The Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham, ISIS, an al Qaeda-related group that is a principal extremist actor in the Syrian civil war and ongoing Iraqi insurgency, seized parts of Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq on Jan. 3. Rather than viewing this as a fundamental power shift between ISIS and Baghdad’s security forces, however, it should be seen as a temporary victory.
Tensions between Baghdad and the Sunni tribes of Anbar province have been simmering through most of last year and boiled over on Dec. 30 when President Maliki ordered a Sunni protest camp to be dismantled by security forces. The arrest of a local senior Sunni politician led to clashes severe enough to prompt Maliki to withdraw security forces from the region in an effort to de-escalate the situation. It was this security vacuum that ISIS used to seize territory in both cities.
It is one thing to grab territory, especially if it is predominantly uncontested, and quite another to hold it against a concerted military operation mounted by the Iraqi security forces. Sources in Iraq claim that roughly 300 ISIS fighters remain in Ramadi while 800 or so are entrenched in Fallujah. While the urban terrain will give ISIS fighters a serious combat boost as the established defenders against the better equipped Iraqi security forces, they won’t have the numbers or ability to hold indefinitely.
ISIS survives in Iraq by being an insurgent group, avoiding direct confrontation and hiding and moving through the population. This territory grab in Ramadi and Fallujah gives them an address, alleviating the Iraqi security forces of one of their most difficult missions of just finding ISIS. Now they can actually concentrate force, and if executed correctly, degrade sizable chunks of combat power in detail.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops and their allies at the end of 2011 and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war next door has given ISIS the ability to rebound into a capable regional actor, but at the same time their aggressiveness has them overcommitted, outgunned and alienated on multiple fronts. Other rebel groups in Syria have started serious infighting with ISIS recently after they became disillusioned with their actions and have attacked several units despite the advantage this gives to the Assad regime.
This leaves the recent Fallujah and Ramadi seizures likely to be temporary at best. The only serious complicating factor for the Iraqi security forces is moderating their use of force so as not to antagonize the Sunni tribes further. While these tribes might covertly support ISIS or turn a blind eye to their actions against the Maliki government, they do not want to be drawn into an open civil war. Many of the tribes in Anbar have already come out in support of the government forces, with just a few throwing their lot in with ISIS.
ISIS’s ultimate goal is to destabilize Iraq to the point where they can accomplish their ultimate aim of a regional Islamic Emirate. They can only accomplish this if they can unite a sizable portion of the Sunni population into a sectarian civil war through their own actions or by provoking the Shiite government into actions that accomplish the same. Without this, they will come up short.