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From all the accounts I can see from here, The Iraqi Security Forces have made major gains in Ramadi and recaptured key terrain. The city is strategically and symbolically critical: It sits on the Euphrates and a highway linking Baghdad to the Syrian and Jordanian borders; further up the Euphrates is the Haditha Dam, which generates power not only for Anbar, but other parts of Iraq.
After they seized Ramadi last May, ISIS apparently connected webs of IEDs to single trigger wires, turning the city into a nightmare of booby-traps. According to Iraqi officials, this is what’s allowing a relatively small number number of them to keep control of cities despite being massively outnumbered. (I am not there. I do not know. Truth is the first casualty of war, etc. But Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the coalition, stands by the assessment.)
The Ramadi operation must be successful to expel ISIS, but the question is how deeply involved Iranian proxy militias are or will be. Again, I couldn’t possibly say from here, but this is the assessment from Institute for the Study of War:
[C]ontinued ISF success may lead to greater interference from Iranian proxy militias, some of which maintain a presence around the Habaniya base east of Ramadi but do not participate in Ramadi operations. Nujaba Movement, an Iranian proxy militia, claimed to have killed ISIS members during Ramadi operations, but there has been no indication of Nujaba Movement units are positioned near the front lines in Ramadi. Proxy militias will likely release similar disinformation in the future to discredit the ISF. PM Abadi is facing immense pressure from Iranian proxies to reject foreign support, particularly from the Coalition, in the wake of a unilateral deployment of Turkish troops to the outskirts of Mosul on December 4. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s December 9 proposal to deploy attack helicopters and “accompanying advisers” to assist the IA in recapturing Ramadi could offset this pressure by showing strong support for the ISF. U.S. support will also expedite the swift recapture of the city, underscoring the importance and effectiveness of the U.S. in the anti-ISIS fight.
I would guess that this reflects our strategic thinking, and I’d guess this is why yesterday, Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he’s willing to send American troops closer to the front lines in Anbar province. Their deployment, he said, would be contingent upon a request from Abadi. Would Abadi request this, given the pressure he’s under? I don’t know. It’s possible that the Russians have so spooked him that he might.
At the same time, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to submit a bill to bypass Baghdad and directly arm the peshmerga of the Kurdish Regional Government. The would effectively cut Abadi government out of the discussion. The indignant Iraqi Embassy pointed out — correctly, as it happens — that this is more about symbolism than immediate military strategy:
Even if the Foreign Affairs Committee approves this legislation, it must travel a long path in order to be enacted into law. In addition to being approved by the Foreign Affairs Committee, it would have to pass the full U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the full U.S. Senate, which for bills of this nature typically occurs only by unanimous vote of the Senate. As a final step, President Obama would have to sign the bill into law.
Nonetheless, the symbolism is sufficiently powerful that Shiite militias have reportedly threatened to attack US forces in Iraq in response.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has kindly offered us a readout of Putin’s meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, which I’m sure is a transparent, unvarnished glimpse into Russian strategic thinking:
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: How is work proceeding, Mr Shoigu? You and I will have to discuss preparations for the annual meeting of the [Defence Ministry] Board on the year’s results, but now let us get down to our current matters, please.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu: Mr President, in line with your instruction, on December 5 we increased the intensity of our strikes and prepared and launched a massive aviation and missile attack using Tu-22 strategic bombers from the territory of the Russian Federation. For the first time we launched Kalibr cruise missiles from the Rostov-on-Don submarine based in the Mediterranean Sea. …
From the Hmeymim airfield, we actively worked on territories where militants who shot our pilot are based. As a result, all these areas have been liberated, and the Syrian Army’s special operation forces…
Vladimir Putin: Searching for the crew?
Sergei Shoigu: Yes. The Syrian service members searched the territory, detected our aircraft’s crash site, and all these bandits were leaving so fast they did not have time to take anything from the aircraft, so we discovered a parametric recorder, which we brought here and which I would like to show you.
Vladimir Putin: With regard to strikes from a submarine. We certainly need to analyse everything that is happening on the battlefield, how the weapons work. Both the Calibre missiles and the Kh-101 rockets are generally showing very good results. We now see that these are new, modern and highly effective high-precision weapons that can be equipped either with conventional or special nuclear warheads.
Naturally, we do not need that in fighting terrorists, and I hope we will never need it. But overall, this speaks to our significant progress in terms of improving weaponry and equipment being supplied to the Russian army and navy.
As for the parametric recorder, let’s look at it now. Have you opened it?
Sergei Shoigu: No, Mr President.
Vladimir Putin: I will ask you not to open it for now, and to open it only together with foreign experts and carefully record everything. As I understand, the parametric logger will give us the opportunity to clearly understand the full trajectory of the Su-24 from the location and moment that it took off to the moment it fell – its speed, altitude, all the turns made during the flight. In other words, we can understand where it actually was and where it suffered that felon blow from the Turkish Air Force, which we have now discussed many times.
And I want to qualify this right away. Of course, we need to know this information. But regardless of what we learn, our attitude toward what was done by the Turkish authorities will not change. I repeat, we treated Turkey not only as a friendly nation but as an ally in the fight against terrorism and nobody expected this treacherous stab in the back.
(No, I’m not making that dialogue up. I couldn’t.)
This is, unfortunately, now a world war. We can and will win it, because we have to. But what a lamentable series of blunders have led to this. What a high price we — and the world — pay when we make mistakes in foreign policy.