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ISIS just won its biggest victory in Iraq in almost a year

Soldiers aligned with Iraq's government fight in Ramadi in March.
Soldiers aligned with Iraq's government fight in Ramadi in March.
(Azhar Shallal/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Sunday, after prolonged fighting in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, ISIS troops pushed out government forces and took control of the city. Ramadi is the provincial capital of Iraq's western Anbar province, making this the biggest ISIS victory in Iraq in nearly a year.

This has significance beyond even just Ramadi: it shows the fundamental weakness of the Iraqi military and its deep dependence on radical Shia militias. It also shows that the campaign to defeat ISIS in Iraq, even if it still looks likely to succeed in the long run, will be a long, hard slog.

Ramadi shows the Iraqi army's problems

iraqi girl isis

An Iraqi girl from Ramadi displaced by the ISIS advance. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

ISIS has for some time been unusually successful in Anbar province, which is mostly Sunni, blocking Iraqi army attacks and at times pushing forward even as they are set back in the rest of the country. Recently, the balance in Anbar has shifting in favor of ISIS — as the fall of Ramadi proves.

Iraq's Ramadi contingent has been underresourced for over a year. "Brave Iraqi troops had held out [in Ramadi] for 16 months, with little help, before crumbling," Liz Sly, the Washington Post's Beirut bureau chief, writes.

This is the Iraqi army's core problem: profoundly weakened by corruption and mass defections during last June's ISIS offensive, it just doesn't have enough effective, battle-hardened units to take on ISIS on its own. Even an Iraqi elite special forces unit deployed to Ramadi, the Golden Division, was defeated because it's "a small force stretched over a dozen battlefields, fighting nonstop [for] a year," according to Michael Knights, the Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

This fundamental weakness forces the Iraqi army to rely on allies: the Kurdish peshmerga in the north and violent sectarian Shia militias in the rest of the country. Together, their combined forces are much stronger than ISIS: both the Kurds and the militias have proven very effective against ISIS on the battlefield. But the factions are also at odds with one another. Some of the most influential Shia militias have political wings that are political rivals of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's Dawa party, for example.

The militias weren't fighting in Ramadi when it fell: Abadi wanted the army to beat ISIS, and the United States was worried about the militias' track record of brutalizing Sunni civilians. So they hoped they could hold back ISIS there without the use of Shia militias, and that failed.

Now Anbar's Sunni-dominated provincial council has formally requested militia assistance — which is on the way. "More forces, including local forces, is the only solution" in Ramadi, Knights writes. The militias are "the only speedy mechanism left."

The campaign to defeat ISIS will be very hard

militia fighters

Shia militia fighters in Basra, Iraq. (Haidar Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

ISIS's victory in Ramadi hasn't changed the fundamentals of the conflict: ISIS is still likely to lose its territory in Iraq. The militant group remains outnumbered, surrounded by enemies, vulnerable to American airstrikes, and facing increasingly competent enemies.

But this campaign will not be easy, nor will it be short. ISIS has a remarkably effective combat force given its size and resources. The Iraqi army is indeed more competent than it was during its disastrous performance early in the conflict, but it still has a long way to go. And the deep political divides between the Iraqi army forces and the militia leadership aren't going away, and could lead to a different sort of conflict after ISIS.

The anti-ISIS campaign, then, will likely have more setbacks like this one. This fighting will continue to devastate Iraq and potentially deepen the Sunni-Shia divides that gave rise to ISIS in the first place. Even with ISIS's fundamental weakness, Iraq is still in a very bad place.

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