The Islamic State group's success in Ramadi signals a long road for reversing recent events
The recent military success of the Islamic State group in conquering Ramadi and in attacking Iraqi forces elsewhere in northwestern Iraq as well as making gains in Syria reminds us that ISIS remains a disciplined, coherent fighting force—not soon to be defeated or disappear. This is not good news for the Christians of Iraq.
The demonstrated military and administrative capacity of ISIS, which proclaimed a worldwide caliphate this time last year, will hamper efforts to recover Mosul from ISIS control and to allow for the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, in particular Christians from the southern Nineveh Plain region and the areas west and southwest of Mosul. For those Christians who have sought refuge outside of their ancestral home region, it will likely be several years before the security situation improves enough with the eradication of ISIS and re-establishment of stable government authority to allow for their return home. Plans for retaking Mosul have already been pushed back, and the flow of funds and fighters to ISIS has not been reduced sufficiently to force a broad near term retreat of ISIS forces. We must reconcile ourselves to the prospect of a years-long struggle against ISIS accompanied by a steady flow of reports of atrocities committed by them in support of installing a Caliphate that accords with ISIS’ violence-laden interpretation of the Quran.
Much has been written about the fault of the Iraqi forces in defending Ramadi. But that ignores the fact that they held out for 18 months against the besieging ISIS forces.
Far less has been written about what we can learn from the success of the ISIS forces. They demonstrated resolve and innovation in tactics, taking advantage of the cover provided by blinding sandstorms to infiltrate the city and surprise the Iraqi security forces there. (Scenes towards the end of the film American Sniper depict the blinding type of sandstorm quite well.) At the same time ISIS was conquering Ramadi, it was pursuing objectives in Syria, effectively fighting on two fronts, or at least in two areas of operations, at the same time. The successful management of the logistics and personnel to pursue two military operations almost simultaneously, even though it did not involve massive numbers of troops and equipment, reveals that ISIS has created the organization and governing structures one associates with a modern state. Even when Ramadi is retaken by Iraqi forces with the help of the anti-ISIS Coalition, the Islamic State group will remain a potent threat in western and northwestern Iraq, precluding the large scale return of those forced out by its onslaughts.
Some of those living under ISIS control report that it collects taxes, enforces laws and regulations, administers “justice” (dispenses punishment to those convicted of an offense), and provides social services to its subjects. In some cases it appears it has allowed Christians to stay as long as they pay the jizya (the tax imposed on non-Muslims in an Islamic state) and do not resist ISIS control. If true, this is another example that ISIS is behaving like an Islamic state, not a terrorist organization.
This does not bode well for the Christian refugees, for states tend to maintain themselves and their control of others longer than do terrorists groups. ISIS in Ramadi and elsewhere soon will face Iraqi counterattacks, likely leading to its loss of control of Ramadi and some other areas, but it will take many successful counterattacks over several years to destroy its administrative structures on the ground as well as in cyberspace.
Once ISIS is defeated militarily and its effective control of parts of Iraq is ended, it is unlikely Christians forced out of their homes will rush to return. Many will have moved out of the region permanently, joining their communities’ diasporas in Europe, the Americas or Australia. Others will long hesitate to return, preferring refugee status to living in their ancestral homeland in fear of a resurgence of ISIS or facing anti-Christian attacks from ISIS sympathizers. Those who do return soon after ISIS is eliminated from Iraq will find homes destroyed or occupied by others, churches demolished or converted into mosques or for commercial use, and businesses destroyed or handed over to others. Restitution will be a long and expensive process, if it ever takes place. Returned refugees are likely to face an unwelcoming attitude, for the Iraqi Sunnis who embraced or at least did not oppose the rise of ISIS will not rejoice at the return of those whom they formerly tolerated but did not protect and from whom they acquired abandoned homes and businesses. Few Iraqi Sunnis actually materially support ISIS or harbor hatred for the Christians (formerly) in their midst, but ISIS has had success in creating the impression among many Iraqi Sunnis that it defends them against the Shi’a-dominated government that they feel has oppressed them, instilling a widespread sense of distrust that and making the re-creation of a mutually tolerant multi-communal Iraq difficult. For Christians in Iraq, this is somewhat of a change in fortunes, for the Sunni-based regime of Saddam Hussein did not single out Iraqi Christians for special mistreatment and even included a few Christians in government.
While the ISIS success in Ramadi may be reversed soon by Iraqi and anti-ISIS Coalition forces, a necessary condition before embarking on the campaign for Mosul and the surrounding region, the taking of Ramadi by ISIS revealed that it will not be easily dislodged from its conquests and that restoring the Christian population displaced from their homeland of two millennia will require several years of military efforts aided subsequently by political courage and the good will of Iraq’s religious leaders.
Ed Staffordis a U.S. foreign service officer currently teaching at the Inter-American Defense College. He served at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the IADC, the U.S. Department of State, or the U.S. government.