The fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, 100 kilometers to the northwest of Baghdad in Iraq’s biggest province of Anbar, has provided grist to the mill of President Barack Obama’s critics who decry that the US’ strategy (or lack of a strategy) in fighting the Islamic State [IS] is withering away. But Obama appears nonplussed, by early indications, and would apparently continue with his strategy.

However, far more importantly, the fall of Ramadi may lead to a major realignment of forces, which has three major dimensions. First, within Iraq itself, although Ramadi is a Sunni city and Anbar is a Sunni province, some of the local tribal fighters have shown receptiveness to taking the help of the Shi’ite militiamen from outside to oust the IS. This belies the thesis popular among the US analysts that any involvement by the Shi’ite militia in Ramadi might open a can of worms on sectarian lines.

Interestingly, Washington has welcomed the development and the US State Department and the Pentagon have changed their mind and now concur with the involvement of the Shi’ite militia — provided, of course, their operations are undertaken under the overall command of the Iraqi army. The State Department Spokesman said in Washington, “It is important to re-take Ramadi and we are confident that Ramadi will be re-taken… If you look at the [Shi’ite] popular mobilisation forces, the decision by the Anbari leadership and tribes to support their coming into Anbar to help re-take Ramadi is an important step.”

Second, Tehran has rushed Defence Minister Gen. Hossein Dehqan to Baghdad on Tuesday to discuss the emergent threat from IS and to assess what additional backing is needed from Iran for the Iraqi armed forces. The Iranian reports have mentioned a “widening of [Iran-Iraq] defence and security cooperation and intensified campaign” against the IS. Dehqan met Iraqi leaders as well as Ammar al-Hakim, the influential head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which provides the bulk of the Shi’ite militia in the fight against the IS.

Clearly, Iran’s influence in Baghdad is touching a new level, given the huge level of backing it is giving the Iraqi government. Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies do not like what they see happening; put differently, the replacement of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraqi prime minister by Haider al-Abadi has not had the expected outcome of a diminution of Iran’s influence in Baghdad. In sum, Abadi has little choice but to depend on Tehran as its best ally in Iraq’s existential war against the IS.

Third, emanating from the above, what emerges beyond doubt is that the US cannot win this war on its own steam. The IS being a hydra-headed monster, copping off one limb here or there makes little difference. That is to say, the question is not about the fine-tuning or course correction of the strategy by the Obama administration to make it more effective, as David Ignatius argues, but as to how the US can win the war without putting boots on the ground.

The heart of the matter is that it is only through the joint effort of the US and Iran that the common threat can be effectively tackled. It is about time that the present level of tacit co-habitation on the battlefield between the erstwhile hostile powers – both the US and Iran fighting this war by backing the Iraqi armed forces – needs to transform into active coordination and real time collaboration at the planning and operational level.

This might seem too much to expect. Given the US domestic politics, Obama’s capacity to push such a controversial line is in real doubt. Above all, the US cannot push one line in Iraq and another diametrically opposite line in Syria. Tehran has underscored that the nuclear talks with the US will not make the slightest difference to its seamless support for the Syrian regime (here) and that it is willing to pull all stops to ensure that the latest Saudi-Turkish-Qatari military campaign in Syria meets with the same fate as before (here).

The Independent newspaper has featured an in-depth analysis of what really happened in Ramadi, with the daily’s Middle East Editor Richard Spencer taking us through the labyrinth of the tribal, sectarian crosscurrents (here).

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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