Ramadi's Fall To ISIS Revives Questions About U.S. Strategy

Ramadi's Fall To ISIS Revives Questions About U.S. Strategy

5:36pm May 20, 2015

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Here's a big question about the U.S. strategy to defeat the self-described Islamic State. The question is, who's winning? Last weekend, the group controlling parts of Iraq and Syria captured Ramadi. That is a provincial capital in a heavily Sunni Muslim part of Iraq. The Iraqi Army's defeat there forced Iraq's government to send in Shia militias, risking even worse sectarian divisions. Yet, the United States says its overall strategy is working over the long term, so we called Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and terrorism expert who's tracking ISIS. We asked if ISIS is any weaker than it was last year.

ALI SOUFAN: In some areas they are more vulnerable, but in some areas, also, they are strong. And they continue to mount attacks and gain territory in Syria and Iraq.

INSKEEP: So what does the fall of Ramadi tell you, then?

SOUFAN: Well, the fall of Ramadi is, basically, an indication that the Iraqi-U.S. policy is in trouble. By capturing the capital of Al Anbar province, ISIS will have access to money. They will have access to weapons. They will have access to people and to many other resources. But also, keep in mind that any campaign, air or ground offensive, is bound to affect civilians. Unfortunately, by taking over Ramadi, ISIS achieved a lot, and they achieved it with relative ease.

INSKEEP: Your group has written that there was no lack of bravery on the part of the Iraqi forces, so what was there a lack of?

SOUFAN: Well, there was a lack of logistics. There is a lack of leadership. And unfortunately, these kind of things kind of take a long, long time to remedy, and ISIS is winning in Iraq because they continue to show that the national government is not able to hold territory or to protect its people. And by doing so, they win. They drive vulnerable people away from the government. They win by instigating the sectarian divide, which is a hallmark of the organization, by the way. Keep in mind that the Iraqi forces did not have the support of the militias. And because they didn't have the support of the militias, they were not able to defend the city, and they failed.

INSKEEP: What can the United States do differently that is within the United States' control?

SOUFAN: We need to work with regional powers, and we need to find a solution for Iraq. We have to pressure the Iraqi government to include Sunnis more in the decision-making process. Without Iraqi unity, I think it's going to be very difficult for the Iraqi Sunni, Shia or Kurds to get together and fight ISIS. These kind of political problems in Iraq is creating a vacuum which allows organizations like ISIS to exist. We can kill leaders of ISIS. They can have tactical defeats here and there, but that's not going to uproot the organization.

Think about it like 9/11. We were, tactically, very successful in killing al-Qaida members. We were very successful in stopping attacks. But we have not been successful in targeting the narrative that allowed Bin Ladenism today and allowed al-Qaida narrative today to be the most important narrative for radical extremists all the way from the western shores of Africa to Southeast Asia. And remember, ISIS came out of that narrative.

INSKEEP: American officials, I think, have been aware for years and years that it would be a better idea for Iraq to have Sunnis and Shias together. They've worked on that over the years, and they've also been aware of the danger of a narrative that they don't counter in the world. What are they failing to do if they are aware of those dangers that you lay out?

SOUFAN: There is a big regional tug of war that's happening today between the Gulf estate, between Iran, between Turkey. And, unfortunately, each one of these regional powers have pawns in Iraq and have pawns in Syria. And I think we need to include a solution that starts in Ankara, in Tehran, in Riyadh. Otherwise, I think we will continue to deal with pawns who are not really in full control of what they are doing in these areas.

INSKEEP: That sounds almost more difficult than defeating ISIS militarily - the idea of getting Iran and Saudi Arabia on the same page, for example.

SOUFAN: And that's why we still have this problem, to be honest with you. Nobody said it's easy, but this problem is not only a problem that can be solved with air campaigns. It's not only a problem that can be solved with special operations. It is also a problem that has to be solved through diplomatic initiatives.

INSKEEP: Ali Soufan, thanks very much.

SOUFAN: Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: Ali Soufan is a former FBI agent and CEO of The Soufan Group. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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