Why the fall of Ramadi matters

Story highlights

  • The key Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to ISIS on Sunday
  • Peter Mansoor: Fall of Ramadi is of substantial strategic significance

Peter Mansoor, colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), is the General Raymond E. Mason, Jr. Chair of Military History at Ohio State University. He served in Iraq as the executive officer to Gen. David Petraeus, the commanding general of Multi-National Force-Iraq, during the period of the surge in 2007-2008. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The fall of Ramadi to militants from the Islamic State over the weekend has once again illustrated the group's power, despite nine months of U.S. and coalition airstrikes that have targeted it in Iraq and Syria. And it has also raised important questions about the effectiveness of U.S. strategy in the region.

In the wake of the fall of Tikrit last month to Iraqi forces and Shia militias, ISIS has responded by consolidating its grip on al-Anbar province and targeting the massive oil refinery at Baiji. All this has energized the debate concerning the effectiveness of the U.S. strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy the group.
Peter Mansoor
The fall of Ramadi is highly symbolic and of substantial strategic significance, despite the protestations to the contrary of Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey. In a joint press conference with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on April 16, Dempsey stated: "The city itself is not symbolic is any way. It's not been declared part of the (Islamic State) caliphate or central to the future of Iraq, but we want to get it back. The issue here is not brick and mortar, it's about defeating ISIL."
    In fact, Ramadi is considered by ISIS to be part of its caliphate that now stretches from northern Syria to central Iraq. It is a key communications center along the Euphrates River corridor and the capital of al-Anbar province, a Sunni area in western Iraq that U.S. troops struggled to pacify for several years after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
    Ramadi is also the home to the Awakening, the tribal movement that did so much to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner to ISIS, in conjunction with the surge of U.S. forces in 2007-2008. The tribes that sided with the United States during that period are now subject to swift and deadly retribution, and their suffering will make it much less likely that Sunni tribes will once again battle the Islamists for control of their homeland.
    How should the United States respond?
    ISIS is a hybrid entity, with elements of conventional and irregular combat power combining to great effect. With that in mind, it is best to counter a hybrid enemy with a hybrid force. The United States can provide the airpower, and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shia private militias have shown some capability to fight on the ground, albeit in the case of the latter groups in conjunction with Iranian advisers and under the guidance of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods force.
    However, the fall of Ramadi has illustrated the shortcomings of the U.S. train-and-equip effort to rebuild the Iraqi army, without which the destruction of the Islamic State becomes much more difficult. Furthermore, with the Sunni tribes of al-Anbar now under ISIS control, the irregular component of any hybrid force is effectively sidelined.
    All this means that the loss of Ramadi represents a major setback in the war to destroy the Islamic State. And it has also illustrated the limitations of using a counterterror approach of air strikes coupled with special operations raids to decapitate the group's leadership and degrade its fighting capacity. ISIS has proven resilient to these military operations and capable of withstanding the damage inflicted by them.
    Moving forward, the Obama administration must now assess the shortcomings of its strategy and determine what additional steps it must take to prevent ISIS from consolidating its grip on al-Anbar province and its people. But just as importantly, it must also prepare the American people for a long war -- one that will take years to reach a satisfactory conclusion for the United States and its allies.