When the city of Ramadi fell to Isis in mid-May, the credibility of the US-backed government in Iraq sank to a new low. Humiliatingly, the conquering army turned out to consist of about 600 men, outnumbered more than 10 to one by government forces who simply fled. The whole US strategy of funding and training the Iraqi army to become an effective fighting force seemed then to lie in ruins and once again there were jitters about whether even Baghdad, 70 miles to the east, was safe.
Yesterday, the capital of Anbar province, Iraq’s largest province, was back in the hands of the Iraqi army, which was also celebrating the fact that it did not owe this significant victory to the Shia militias that have been responsible for most recent gains made at the expense of Isis. This is important because Anbar is solidly Sunni territory, and Shia groups alone can never hope to make lasting progress there.
With Ramadi now under Iraqi government control, attention has already shifted to Mosul in the north, Iraq’s second city, which Isis conquered last June. By far the most important urban centre in Isis hands, its recapture would be a much more significant event than the gain of Ramadi.
However, we should be very wary of predicting the fate of Mosul. There has been much talk of retaking the city since February but, almost a year on, nothing has happened.
Nor is Isis about to cut and run. A curious hybrid of conventional state and guerrilla force, it is adept at yielding to force majeure in some areas while making fresh conquests somewhere else. It may be losing ground in Iraq but it is holding its own in Syria and making important advances in Afghanistan. The war with Isis is not nearly over, therefore, nor can we yet say that the tide has turned.
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