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How to Interpret the Victory in Ramadi

Shia paramilitaries ride in military vehicles in Nibai, May 26, 2015. Reuters

After the Islamic State (also called ISIS) took Ramadi last week, a number of prominent analysts concluded that the group is once more on the rise. Some have compared the conquest of the city, capital of the strategic Anbar province, with ISIS’ nearly uncontested sweep through Mosul almost a year ago. Others have predicted that the group could now even take Baghdad.

The Guardian reporter Martin Chulov wrote, “From Beirut to Baghdad and as far away as Riyadh, regional actors are coming to terms with an organization that can win most of its battles and successfully storm Syria and Iraq’s best-defended bastions.” Stuart Gottlieb, an adjunct professor of American foreign policy at Columbia University, asserted that “despite an eight-month American-led air campaign, ISIS remains very much on the march.” 

A resident of Tabqa waves an ISIS flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city, August 24, 2014.
A resident of Tabqa waves an ISIS flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city, August 24, 2014. Reuters

Such assessments drastically overstate ISIS’ capabilities: Although Ramadi was a significant tactical and propaganda victory, the fact remains that the terrorist group is overextended and on the defensive throughout much of Iraq. Alarmist assessments fail to consider the complexities of the military offensive against ISIS. Any long-term campaign against a formidable opponent will involve losses and gains on both sides, and observers should be careful not to overstate what a single battle tells us about the war. 

For Iraq and counterterrorism experts, ISIS’ conquest of Ramadi should not have been a surprise. ISIS began controlling parts of the city as early as January 2014, meaning the territory was contested for at least 16 months prior to its final capture. And even as it became increasingly clear that Ramadi was on the brink of falling to ISIS, Iraqi security forces mounted only a half-hearted effort to secure the city. Indeed, it was woefully under-defended: Anti-ISIS forces in Ramadi repeatedly requested reinforcements from Baghdad, while local tribal forces begged the Iraqi military for additional ammunition and equipment months prior to

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