Following weeks of fighting between Iraqi government forces and ISIS insurgents, the city of Ramadi has been captured by the Islamic State. The city, located roughly 70 miles west of Baghdad and the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, is a key victory for ISIS in the country. According to Fox News, ISIS’s takeover of the city has caused approximately 20,000 people to flee. ISIS fighters have been going door to door in search of government officials, carrying out executions on public streets.
The takeover of Ramadi represents ISIS’s most significant victory in recent months, and it demonstrates the instability of the Iraqi government in defending against the insurgents. According to the BBC, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had pledged that Ramadi would not fall in the same way as Tikrit earlier this year. The failure to maintain control of the city shows the weakness of his defense. Muhannad Haimour, a spokesperson for the Anbar government, did not mince words when describing the outcome of ISIS’s victory. “The situation in the city is absolutely terrible. The city is in very bad shape,” Hainmour said. About 500 people have died during the fighting in Ramadi.
In response to the takeover, the Iraqi government has called on Iran-backed Shia militias to help launch a counterattack. The same Shia forces were used to help reclaim Tikrit from ISIS last month. The use of these militias, however, creates a conflict of interest for the United States. Their presence could not only spread the sphere of Iran’s influence in Iraq, but also produce tension between Sunnis and Shiites in the region.
The involvement of Iran-backed militias and the failure of the Iraqi government to hold Ramadi only complicate matters for the U.S. Regardless of those complications, the U.S. government has remained firm in its commitment to helping defeat ISIS in the country. “This is a difficult, complex, bloody fight. And there’s going to be victories and setbacks. We will retake Ramadi,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren said. The takeover of Ramadi follows a victory of sorts for the U.S.-led coalition, which killed ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf and several other fighters in a raid in Syria on Saturday. Still, the level of Abu Sayyaf’s involvement or seniority in ISIS is not entirely understood — and it’s unclear whether his death will truly be the “significant blow” to the group that Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter described. Obviously, it hasn’t stopped ISIS from advancing in Iraq.
ISIS’s advancement in Iraq and Syria is a major foreign policy concern for the United States government. Thus far, the Obama administration has been relatively engaged in the campaign against ISIS, authorizing missions like the one that killed Abu Sayyaf within Syria as well as working with the Iraqi government to maintain stability in the region. Still, the U.S. government’s strategy has not been entirely clear. Iraq is in shambles at least in part because of the war we started there, and ending conflict or involvement in the country hasn’t been as simple as we’ve hoped. With another presidential election looming in 2016, ISIS and Iraq will likely be major issues discussed during the campaign. If ISIS continues making advancements like the one that occurred in Ramadi, U.S. politicians will be forced to make major decisions about how the future of our involvement will play out in the region.