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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Implications of the Fall of Key Syrian and Iraqi Cities to ISIS

Filed under: Iraq, ISIS, Israeli Security, Radical Islam, Syria, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 15,  No. 14     May 27,  2015

  • The fall of the major cities of Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq to the Islamic State is part of the disintegration of the Middle East’s nation-states.
  • Assad-controlled Syria has shrunk to half its size and lost control of almost all of its borders. 
  • The Islamic State (IS) finds itself almost within shelling distance from Baghdad and bordering Saudi Arabia and Jordan, raising acute fears in both countries. On the Syrian front, IS has advanced to striking distance of Damascus.
  • The United States was surprised by the Islamic State’s victories, seeing the fall of Ramadi as a “set-back.”  A “sit and wait and see” policy may explain U.S. policy in Syria.
  • The battles have proven that the Shiite armies had no resolve or will to fight the Sunni jihadists. This leaves open the option of Iran and its proxies enlarging their involvement.
  • Hizbullah has been engaged in battle in Syria and has become an important pillar of the Syrian regime. Hizbullah has taken heavy casualties.

With the fall of Palmyra (Tadmor in Hebrew) in Syria and Ramadi, east of Baghdad, to the Islamic State (IS), and the fall of the strategic town in the north of Syria – Jisr el Shughur – to the Jabhat el Nusra, the Middle East has entered a new phase in the disintegration of its nation-states.

Ramadi, Iraq (Wikipedia)
Ramadi, Iraq (Wikipedia)

The fall of Ramadi and Palmyra came as a stunning surprise to both analysts and intelligence agencies (including the United States) who only a few weeks ago claimed that IS had been contained. After the Iraqi forces’ recapture of Tikrit in April 2015, it seemed as if it was the beginning of the “reconquista” against the Sunni jihadist organization that had also suffered from the loss of several top commanders and the incapacitation of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  Reports claimed he was unable to lead and conduct the Islamic State’s affairs following a severe injury in March 2015.

Why Is the Loss of Those Three Towns so Dramatic?

  1. With the fall of Palmyra – and by extension the loss of the southern part of Syria – and of Jisr el Shugur in the northern province of Idlib, not only has Syria shrunk to less than half of its original size, the Alawite regime has lost all of its border crossings with its direct neighbors: Turkey, Iraq, Israel and Jordan. The only open gates for the regime are the ones adjacent to Lebanon and on the Mediterranean coast in the Latakia province. This is also the reason behind the staunch offensive waged by the Assad regime together with its battered Hizbullah ally on the Kalamoun ridge bordering Syria and Lebanon. An eventual loss of these border crossings would definitely weigh high on the ability of the regime to survive.
  1. Following the loss of Palmyra, the remnants of Assad’s troops in the area of Hassaqeh and Deir el Zour in the east find themselves cut off from their rear and most probably will fall to IS in a very short time. The Syrian regime appears to have decided not to fight to reclaim the lost outposts but to concentrate on the very heartland of Syria. This area is a geographical belt fluctuating between 100-200 km deep that stretches from the Latakia province in the north, including the cities of Homs and Hamah, to Damascus and stopping near what used to be the capital of the Golan, Quneitra. This is the area that is of existential importance to the regime and seems to be the area where Assad and his supreme command have chosen to dig in and fight the jihadists.
Palmyra, Syria (Wikipedia)
Palmyra, Syria (Wikipedia)
  1. The events in Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq have proven that the Shiite armies had no resolve or will to fight the Sunni jihadists. Even though the Syrian army seemed overstretched, the regime did not allocate the proper forces to block the advance of the jihadists. As for Iraq, the declarations of the U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter demonstrate more than anything the poor state of the Iraqi army.1 The Iraqi Army repeated its disastrous performance in Mosul almost a year ago, proving to all that it was not to be trusted.

“The Iraqi Army was not driven out of Ramadi,” said the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. “They drove out of Ramadi.”2

There may be another explanation for the behavior of the Syrian and Iraqi armies: fighting by Shiite-led forces in Sunni areas is not like fighting on the very doorsteps of the Shiite hinterland. This would explain the lack of motivation and resolve shown on the battlefield by both regimes.

  1. With the loss of Ramadi, Iraq, to the Islamic State forces and almost the whole Sunni province of Al-Anbar, IS finds itself almost within shelling distance from Baghdad and bordering Saudi Arabia and Jordan, raising acute fears in both countries. On the Syrian front, IS has advanced to striking distance of Damascus. IS territory has grown dramatically to a wide swath of land cutting through the two countries, totaling almost 300,000 square kilometers and populated by 8 to 10 million people.

The military options for the Islamic State are open and varied: it can attack and take over one of the airbases in Deir el Zour or T-4 from where the Syrian air force is conducting its sorties against the rebels. Parallel to this option, IS can choose to concentrate its efforts on the Iraqi front with the intention to encircle Baghdad by pushing northward to the most important Iraqi refinery – Beiji, or push eastwards towards Fallujah and the important Iraqi airbase at Habbaniyyah. In all these options, the Iraqi regime has limited forces, unless the Iranian-commanded popular militias (Al-Hashd el-Shaabi) take over more responsibilities in the war against the IS.

The U.S. administration was taken by surprise by IS attacks (as it was in the Saudi attacks on Yemen), and described the fall of Ramadi as a “set back.”3

The policy of countering IS by air attacks has proven to be faulty (the failure to support the Iraqi forces in Ramadi was attributed by some to a sandstorm that grounded aircraft4). Stopping short of being involved in ground attacks against IS, the U.S. has decided to assist the Iraqi Army by providing more weapons, mainly anti-tank weapons meant to stop at a distance suicide bombers’ vehicles sent in a first wave against Iraqi positions, preceding the engagement of the IS troops.

The American hope that the Iraqi Shiite leadership would be more accommodating to the Sunni population has vanished. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite, seems to be a copy of his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, which means that no compromise with the Sunnis can be envisaged at this point.

The Sunnis are now fighting to create their own entity at the expense of the Shiite regime and at the price of the partition of Iraq. The options for the U.S. are quite limited as long as the option for ground intervention is dismissed. The U.S. might increase its air intervention and continue its current involvement by supplying weapons and training to Iraq’s failing army.

At what point will the American policy change and try to convince the Iraqi regime that the federal partition of Iraq could be the last and only choice? At this point of time, it is still too early to see such a fundamental change.

As far as Syria is concerned, it seems that the United States is not alarmed by the possibility of Assad’s fall. The U.S. has been pampering rebel and opposition forces, following the examples of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar over the past four years of the conflict. The U.S. might bet on the takeover by the rebels it supports, but the “sit and wait and see” policy is not bound to change for the time being.

With this background and with the United States indifferent to the Syrian events while being unable to provide immediate relief to Iraq, an Iranian option becomes more and more concrete.

Iran will have to make tough choices: It has declared in the past it would intervene militarily if the holy shrines of Shi’ism (Samarra, Karbala and Najf) are attacked and in the event IS troops get within 100 kilometers of the Iranian border. Since most of its “popular militia” is already involved in Iraq, Iran will send, as it did in Syria, Iranian-commanded foreign formations (like the Afghan brigades in the Golan) or an expeditionary force based on the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds intervention force, headed by Major-General Qassem Suleimani. Iran could also dispatch aircraft to assist the Iraqis in their military efforts.

Most interesting is the fate of Iran’s proxy offshoot, Hizbullah, which has been engaged in battle in Syria and has become an important pillar of the Syrian regime. Hizbullah has taken heavy casualties and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah had to explain that the battle Hizbullah is waging is an existential one. “Had we not fought in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus,” Nasrallah argued, “we would have fought in Baalbek, Hermel, al-Ghazieh, Sidon, Tyre, Nabatieh and other Lebanese villages, towns and cities.”5 Hizbullah understands too well that much is at stake at this point. This is the reason behind the general mobilization declared by Nasrallah. A defeat of Assad would mean inevitably a defeat for Hizbullah and the beginning of a domestic war in Lebanon with all the rivals waiting to see the demise of Hizbullah.

With the fall of Ramadi and Palmyra the outlines of a new map of the Middle East are starting to take form. The Arab-nation states are trying to oppose this trend: Saudi Arabia and its allies are fighting this development in Yemen; Egypt is trying to create an all-Arab intervention force to deal with Libyan quagmire; while the Sahel countries are also trying to organize militarily to counter the IS and Al-Qaeda threat in their areas of Africa.

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