I just returned from a Christmas time Congressional Delegation (CODEL) visit to Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Qatar. As a member of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, I would like to share my thoughts with you on the Iraqi military recapturing Ramadi from ISIS.
Recapturing Ramadi is a key strategic victory for Iraq and coalition forces. For Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Sean McFarland, the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, and all others who played critical roles in this effort, this is a very positive development not just for Iraqi security, but for the security of the free world in the fight against ISIS.
In Iraq, the United States and coalition partners clearly have a plan and that plan is moving in the right direction. Since the May 19th fall of Ramadi, there has been no loss of ground to ISIS for more than 48 hours. It is very tenuous though and with so much ground still to recapture, the reality remains that this could all pivot in the opposite direction in the blink of an eye. An intense battle for Mosul still awaits.
For ISIS, which has linked its efforts to establishing a caliphate, holding ground and expanding further is critical. That is a key reason why their loss of Ramadi is important. There is a possibility that within two to five years, the Iraqis will recapture all land in their country currently held by ISIS. That is far from certain, but for the first time in a long time, many are at least feeling momentum in the right direction.
Syria and Libya are a completely different story where there seems to be no plan to defeat ISIS, only to take out some of the bad guys and disrupt some of their command and control. That situation I fear is likely to get worse before it gets better and is a race against the clock. The best humanitarian victory that can be delivered for the Syrians is to wipe ISIS off the face of the earth and for the rest of the civil war to end. It is difficult to develop a plan for a post-Assad Syria if all of the people needed to run the country afterwards flee now with almost no possibility they will move back later. There is only so much patience before those capable of rebuilding Syria who still remain will also flee the country. This is an urgent crisis without a plan.
The United States has an important role to play in the mission to defeat ISIS, whether we want to or not. It is clear that in Iraq at least the strategy has evolved recently into one that is using more boots on the ground while approaching operations responsibly in a way to greatly mitigate the potential loss of American service members. There are still ways to improve the mission from intelligence collection to information operations (IO). On the IO front, despite all of the sacrifice made by the United States in Iraq, there is little to no gratitude for our efforts. We should consider additional ways to improve the message that is being disseminated to civilians so that they better understand history and current reality rather than just the version the Iranians are providing with their media propaganda throughout Iraq.
The Iran backing of Shia militia is a sustained issue. Right now, they are not targeting Americans, but in the past, they have killed and wounded U.S. service members and the threat of future violence is an impediment for mission accomplishment. There is a direct connection to the recently negotiated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1. The leverage that brought the Iranians to the table was the sanctions relief and now those sanctions have been negotiated away without resolving so many other lingering issues such as state sponsored terrorism, efforts to overthrow foreign governments, illegal ballistic missile tests, and pledges of ‘Death to America’. America must come to the realization that we got played at the negotiating table and consider options to reconsider our unilateral concessions that negotiated away our leverage.
There are also major challenges still ahead for Prime Minister al-Abadi who appears to currently be leading better than his predecessor, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It is still uncertain whether Iraq has a stable future with the Kurds, Sunnis and Shia accepting the new form of government. Prime Minister al-Abadi seems to be working very hard to move the complex pieces in a direction where the coalition government would have its best chance for success. On the military front, the recapturing of Ramadi was a key victory for the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS). The larger issue is the massive gap in readiness between CTS and the rest of the Iraqi Army, which lacks the will to defend the country. The CTS’ ranks need to grow without compromising quality in pursuit of quantity and/or the Iraqi Army needs to start showing up for work and shaping up to keep the nation secure.
It’s a complex map in the Middle East with additional factors at play when you add in to the mix Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, etc. As for Iraq specifically, the path forward is uncertain, but with victory in Ramadi, a plan that could potentially work, and momentum in the right direction, there is enough reason to not only praise a hard fought battle won, but to be a little more optimistic about the future. The strategy is evolving and victory no longer seems impossible.
Congressman Zeldin (R, C – NY 1) is the U.S. Representative for New York’s 1st Congressional District and currently serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In 2006 Zeldin was deployed to Iraq with an infantry battalion of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division. In 2007, he transitioned from active duty to the Army Reserve where he currently serves with the rank of Major. Congressman Zeldin led a Christmas time Congressional Delegation (CODEL) visit to the Middle East with stops in Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Qatar. During Congressman Zeldin’s CODEL, he met with Lieutenant General Sean McFarland (Commander of Combined Joint Task Force- Operation Inherent Resolve), Major General Richard Clark (Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division), Deputy Chief of Mission Jonathan Cohen (Office of the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq), Ambassador Douglas Silliman (U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait), and many other top military and diplomatic leadership. This Christmas time CODEL also allowed Congressman Zeldin to meet with and thank many of our service members away from home for the holidays. A press release with all photos recapping the CODEL can be found here.