As Ramadi falls, US fails to take key Islamic State figure alive
In the space of two days, developments in the war against Islamic State (IS) apparently saw both a devastating loss and a major success.
The fall of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, to IS paramilitaries after weeks of fighting in spite of air power support is very bad news for the coalition.
But the US was at least able to celebrate the successful assassination of Abu Sayyaf in a special forces night raid on the Syrian town of Deir al-Zour. The Pentagon has presented the operation as a success, coming at a time when the war against IS is not being won.
But a closer look at what happened suggests this is not good news at all.
Displaced Iraqis flee Ramadi as Islamic State forces advance. EPA/Ahmed Jalil
Two steps back
The fall of Ramadi is certainly significant, not least because the centrepiece of the government’s operation to defeat Islamic State had been wresting back control of the whole of Anbar Province.
Instead, the city’s defences collapsed in the face of an IS onslaught, with more than 500 Iraqi soldiers and civilians killed only a day after the government had rushed in reinforcements. The prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has responded to the loss by calling on Shia militias from Baghdad to join the fight – a hugely risky decision given that Ramadi’s Sunni population is deeply suspicious of Abadi’s Shia-dominated government.
To make matters worse, the Iraqi Army fled the city leaving behind at least 60 US-supplied military vehicles, and the units based at the Anbar Operations Command left behind a huge cache of weapons. According to reports, these included “rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns” and “had been supplied by both the US and Russia”.
Despite this stunning reversal, gains were supposedly being made elsewhere. Only 24 hours earlier the Pentagon had announced the killing of a key Islamic State leader, Abu Sayyaf, by a substantial Delta Force unit at Deir al-Zour, a small but strategically situated Syrian city about 80 miles from the Iraqi border.
During the raid at least a dozen IS fighters were killed along with Sayyaf, whose wife was captured and brought back to Iraq.
This was initially counted as a success for the US, but as more details emerged, it was clear that Sayyaf was important because of his knowledge rather than his power.
Tunisian by birth, he had first travelled to Iraq around 2003 at the time of the US occupation and had been involved in the resistance for most of a decade, most recently in Syria. He was a mid-level member of the IS organisation, not a senior leader, and was described by one US analyst as the equivalent of Al Capone’s accountant.
Such a person would have a broad knowledge of IS whole system of management and control, exactly what has made the movement so spectacularly rich.
This is not the kind of target against whom you launch a powerful and lethal US special forces unit into the heart of Syria, moving in a unit of V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor troop carriers supported by Black Hawk helicopters, if you merely want to eliminate him.
A V22 Osprey folds up.
If killing him had been the actual aim, drones or strike aircraft would have been used, as they have on many other occasions against the IS leadership. The US aim was clearly to capture him and bring him back for what is politely termed “robust interrogation”.
Put bluntly, for all the Pentagon’s post-attack hype, this was a raid that failed. Sayyaf’s death robs the US forces of a chance to better understand the inner organisation of IS, a valuable prize with the war hardly going the West’s way.
Fly by night
This kind of night raid was typical of operations undertaken repeatedly in Iraq back in 2004-07, when US and UK special forces were fighting to control the Iraq insurgency. In those operations, especially 2006’s Operation Arcadia, thousands of insurgents were killed or captured, with many of the latter subject to interrogation leading on to further raids. At its peak, the operation by Task Force 145 involved up to 300 night raids a month.
At the time, this was credited with giving the US the advantage in the war, but it’s is now clear that many of IS’s core leaders have survived that singularly violent period, thanks no doubt to their extensive combat experience against the best-trained and most heavily armed forces the US and UK units operated in Iraq.
These two events augur ill for the trajectory of the war. The Deir al-Zour raid is the first publicly acknowledged offensive special forces raid into Syria, but there may well have been others, and it’s highly unlikely to be the last. The fall of Ramadi, meanwhile, shows that more than 6,000 airstrikes since the summer of 2014 have failed to force IS into retreat.
That inescapable fact means the war will in all probability escalate to direct ground combat involving special forces, however much Obama’s White House has been reluctant to sanction it. In that context, the failure to take Sayyaf alive will be of much greater concern to the Pentagon than it is prepared to admit.