As the Iraqi and Syrian armed forces continue to play a deadly game of tug-of-war with the IS, some argue that their resolve is weakening.
After IS forces took Ramadi last week, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter claimed on CNN’s “State of the Union” that, “What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight.”
He continued by claiming that despite a large numerical advantage of the assualting IS force, Iraqi soldiers chose to withdraw rather than fight off the invasion.
This claim has, for obvious reasons, drawn outrage from Iraqi leaders. One Iraqi statesmen described the claims as, “unrealistic and baseless.”
Another blamed the US for the event, claiming that it failed to deliver crucial weapons and supplies before the IS arrived.
Regardless of the blame, the loss puts a damper on a previously upbeat feeling that Iraq was making progress in combatting the IS.
In order to regain the initiative Iraq, backed by Shia militias and US airstrikes, had begun a counter-offensive around the city.
The Iraqi forces are pounding the area around the city in hopes of recapturing it, as it is the largest and most strategic city in the governorate.
There is also fierce fighting a few miles from Ramadi at the Habbaniyah military base. The base serves as a launching point for Iraqi forces and Shia paramilitary grops in the counter-offensive.
Therefore, the IS has targeted it as a crucial control point, one that it hopes to seize, thereby preventing opposition forces from utilizing it.
On the Syrian front, the IS recently captured the ancient city of Palmyra, a World Heritage site and highly important religious location.
This means that the IS has taken two cities in less than a week, as both the Syrian and Iraqi forces falter.
In addition to being a strategic landmark, the city of Palmyra was a concern due to its historical importance.
IS forces have a history of destroying historical artifacts including ancient statues and religious relics.
Plamyra, home to some of the most magnificent remnants of antiquity, was particularly worrisome for archaeologists.
However, it was the surrounding gas-fields and crucial roads to and from the city that worried the tacticians. Despite its strategic importance, Syrian forces failed to defend the city.
The loss of Palmyra, right on the heels of the fall of Ramadi, have raised doubts concerning both the US’ ability to combat the IS effectively and more broadly, whether regional powers will be able to destroy IS effectively.
In terms of US policy, the dual losses have forced the country into a difficult diplomatic position.
Supporting the reclamation of Ramadi would mean working with Iranian backed Shia militias in a majoirty Sunni province. Neither the cooperation with Shia militias, nor with the largely Shia government will endear America to the Sunni population that IS recruits from.
In Palmyra, striking IS forces will undoubtedly benefit Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a leader who Obama has previouisly called to be ousted.
Supporting his troops would give the impression that Obama, and the United states at large, support his regime.
Moreover, even Syrian rebels are hopeful that Assad can retake the ruins, an odd position for them to be in.
The US now has to decide between working with or supporting disagreeable regimes to defeat a worse enemy, or trusting those same regimes to handle the IS on their own.
The danger in letting regional actors, including Syria and Iran, tackle IS is the possibility that these unfavorable actors would undoubtedly gain a great deal of regional influence, whether in the land they reclaim or in favor from other governments.
If the US stops supporting Iraq, then the Iraqis would end up relying solely on Iranian militias for support, falling substantially into debt. Certainly this qualifies as an unfavorable outcome.
The Syrian question is less about influence and more about whether Syria can do it. The three-way war in Syria is taxing on both the national army and the rebels, begging the question of whether Syria would be able to defeat the IS at all.
It seems then, that despite unfavorable circumstances, the US ought to support both Iraq and Syria in their fights.