Defeating ISIS after Ramadi: A whack-a-mole game

Civilians flee Ramadi as ISIS takes control
Civilians flee Ramadi as ISIS takes control

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    Civilians flee Ramadi as ISIS takes control

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Civilians flee Ramadi as ISIS takes control 03:02

Story highlights

  • ISIS has taken Ramadi despite recent optimism by the U.S. and Iraq, says Victoria Fontan
  • Coalition efforts are being negated by Baghdad's antagonism of Sunnis, she says
  • Airstrikes need to be backed up with ground offensives and political solutions, she says

Victoria Fontan is interim chair of the Politics and Public Policy Department at the American University Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan; she is a doctoral candidate in War Studies at King's College London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)It was only a month ago that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi triumphantly announced that his army would retake the Anbar province from ISIS.

After a victory in Saddam's former stronghold of Tikrit, it was taken as given that ISIS had lost ground in Iraq, and that U.S.-led coalition airstrikes were key to defeating the terrorist group on the long run.
Only a week ago, the Pentagon made it clear that its strategy was working. If it weren't for the Iraqi government, it certainly would be.
    The problem is that the coalition efforts and the Iraqi government's actions are canceling each other out. When the coalition makes military advances, the Iraqi government sabotages them by antagonizing the very people who are needed to help root out ISIS, the Sunni population of Iraq.
    Victoria Fontan
    The catastrophic loss of Ramadi shows that Anbar, once again, is the canary in the Iraqi coalmine: It needs to be understood instead of being dismissed as the problem. It took a few years for the U.S. government to grasp this after the 2003 invasion, before successfully engaging Anbar Sunni tribes against al-Qaeda in this very city, in 2006.
    So far, the Baghdad government is too blinded by its sectarian politics to understand that it needs to rapidly change course before it reaches a political point of no return. No coalition airstrikes can help defeat a terrorist organization thriving on Baghdad's perceived victimization of Iraqi Sunnis.
    Sparse military gains over ISIS will always be eclipsed by governmental political mistakes, which remain at the core of ISIS's often-reluctant Sunni support.
    Today, the state of the Iraqi army, weakened by Baghdad's sectarian politics and the rise of Shia militias, is catastrophic. It appears that few soldiers are willing to die for a part of the country that they do not associate with: Anbar.
    The apparent flight of Iraqi troops from Ramadi alongside the famous Golden Division -- Iraqi U.S.-trained special forces -- is concerning.
    Until now, the Golden Division has been forced to systematically face ISIS.
    How can the Iraqi army retake Anbar after this? Even if Shia militias are flocking to the Habaniya air base to prepare a counter-offensive, they are part of the problem. According to Human Rights Watch, these militias have allegedly committed too many human rights abuses against Iraqi Sunnis after the Tikrit offensive, burning villages and executing Sunni civilians randomly.
    To make matters worse for Sunnis, the Tikrit offensive relied not only on Iraqi troops, but also a division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, headed by the much-detested General Qassim Suleimani. Many in Iraq took this as a slap in the face.
    'Complex iceberg'
    While the Iraqi government is assuring that Anbar Sunni tribes have lent their support to the fight against ISIS, a Fallujah resident tells me that only five out of 26 tribes have joined in so far: Abuisha, Abufaed, part of Buissa, Geraifa and Abuboed from al-Qaim. Today, these tribes have warned on Iraqi's al-Arabiya television channel they would not take part in the counteroffensive if Iranian General Suleimani came to Anbar.
    The remaining tribes may be reluctant to join in as they see how the government and Shia militias have treated the Jibouri tribe of Salaheddin since last summer.
    Even though it had participated alongside the militias and Iran in the Tikrit offensive, they have been left to mercy of Shia militias operating in the areas surrounding al-Alam and Dhulluyia.
    Retaking Anbar is only the tip of a complex iceberg, and while coalition airstrikes are working, benefits will only be long-lasting when complemented by adequate ground offensives and comprehensive political solutions.
    So far, Iraqi Sunni areas are like a whack-a-mole game, you hammer one ISIS presence only to see another one pop up elsewhere.