More than two months have passed since the US-led coalition launched air strikes against Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) militants in Syria and Iraq in a bid to dislodge the terrorist organisation from key positions in both countries. But in spite of reports that the militants had incurred heavy casualties, as a result of the air campaign, fighting in the Syrian border town of Kubani continues and Daesh fighters remain in strategic towns such as Al Riqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. It is doubtful that air strikes alone will be enough to defeat the organisation, which continues to exhibit signs of defiance as well as the ability to regroup and wage new offensives.
One area where the group has recently made impressive gains is in the Anbar province of Iraq. The province is the country’s largest and least populated. It is strategically important since it borders Syria, where Daesh has vital bases, and Jordan. More than that, control of Anbar means that the organisation will have a clear way towards Baghdad.
Fighting in Anbar has picked up significantly in the past few days. Daesh militants were able to take control of 15 villages in the province while driving back government forces in Heet and near Ramadi and Fallujah. One reason for their quick advance is the government’s hesitation to arm and train the Sunni tribes in that province in spite of earlier promises by Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi. Daesh militants have targeted tribe members who dared to fight them such as Bul Nimer, who lost hundreds of men in the past few weeks. Sunni notables have condemned the government for failing to come to their rescue and for not delivering on promises to arm them.
Anbar Sunnis had suffered under the eight-year rule of former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. They repeatedly complained of his policy to exclude them from the political process and for sending his troops to crush a popular uprising that was calling for restitution of Sunni rights in Iraq. His successor, Al Abadi, had promised to form a national unity government and to address the complaints of Iraq’s Sunnis. But it is clear that the government is unable, or unwilling, to conclude reconciliation with tribal leaders, many of whom remain in Jordan and Irbil in exile.
Daesh, like Al Qaida, has used the Sunni province as a base for its operations. Many disgruntled residents have embraced the militants who were defending the Sunnis against Shiite militias under Al Maliki’s command. And since the Daesh militants took over Mosul earlier this year, new Shiite-dominated militias were formed to support the armed forces. It is believed that Iranian general, Qasim Sulaimani, is running these militias, which have been blamed for committing atrocities against Sunnis in areas liberated from Daesh.
Despite the international offensive against Daesh, there is little information about the organisation’s military structure. Eye-witnesses in Anbar say the militants are heavily armed and are in possession of armoured vehicles and have superior fire power. The Iraqi army was driven back from areas near Ramadi and Heet and it is now believed that Daesh fighters are bent on taking over the province in the coming days. Reports say that they already control more than 80 per cent of the province and that they have established supply routes from Syria.
The fall of Anbar will be a major gain for the terrorist group. Not only will it cut off western Iraq from the rest of the country, but it will mean control of the international highway leading to Baghdad. For Jordan, the fall of the province means Daesh fighters will be deployed along its eastern borders. There are reports that Daesh fighters are preparing to move on southern Syrian territory, most of which is under the control of Free Syrian Army (FSA).
To save Anbar the Iraqi government, along with the US, must move quickly. It is not enough to arm the Sunni tribes. Iraq’s Sunnis need to be assured that the bitter experience of the ‘awakenings’ will not be repeated. Back in 2008, the Sunnis who fought against Al Qaida were abandoned by the Americans and persecuted by Al Maliki once they succeeded in their mission. Now Anbar tribes are divided and sceptical about Baghdad’s intentions and promises. On the other hand, arming the Sunnis is risky. It could lead to a Sunni-Shiite clash once the threat of Daesh has been quelled. Some among the Sunnis are calling for self-rule and autonomy in Anbar and other Sunni provinces. Certainly the Iranians, who have considerable influence in Baghdad, will be weary of such a scenario.
The Americans too have promised to train and arm the Sunnis of Anbar, but little has been done until now. Meanwhile, Daesh fighters are making headway in the province and for now it appears that they have the upper hand. If they take over Anbar’s key cities in the coming weeks, it will be a big victory for the group and major loss for the coalition and for the Baghdad government.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.