Iraq’s Anbar province is expected to fall to Islamic State-led militants in the absence of a major intervention by federal or US-led coalition forces. This will increase the threat to Baghdad, but any militant offensive against the capital is unlikely to succeed given US air support and the concentration of government and militia forces around the city. The potential fall of Anbar underscores the weaknesses of the current US-led strategy against IS, which is unlikely to prevent further IS advances until more capable ground forces are mobilised with the backing of Sunni communities.
Insurgents led by Islamic State took advantage of a worsening sectarian, political and security crisis to seize control of large parts of Anbar in December 2013. Fighting in the area has intensified since June 2014 when IS captured much of northern and central Iraq. As of mid-October provincial leaders estimated that around 80 percent of the predominately Sunni province was under IS control and that the remainder could fall before the end of the month. Authorities have appealed for reinforcements as hundreds of Iraqi troops have been killed or captured since September, with militants continuing to overrun bases in the area. Defeated troops have complained of poor communication, weak leadership and inadequate supplies. Strategically critical areas such as the provincial capital of Ramadi are increasingly vulnerable, amid reports that federal forces continue to withdraw from districts in the city. The fall of Haditha, which is reportedly encircled, and Ramadi would open clear supply lines for militants all the way from their territory in Syria to the edge of Baghdad.
In the absence of a major intervention by federal troops or US-led coalition forces, the remainder of Anbar appears increasingly likely to fall to IS. This would deal a major psychological blow to Iraq and the US-led coalition whose air strikes have failed to halt the militant advance in the west. It would also increase the vulnerability of nearby Baghdad to mortar, rocket and other attacks. Iraqi forces have already clashed with insurgents 30 km from central Baghdad in the Abu Ghraib area and militants are reportedly advancing into Sunni districts bordering the capital.
Despite this, Baghdad is significantly better prepared to withstand an IS offensive than other major towns and cities that have fallen to the group in recent months. An estimated 60,000 government troops and even larger numbers of Shi’a militiamen are prepared to defend the capital. The prospect of any large-scale IS offensive against Baghdad succeeding is further reduced by the commitment of American forces to protecting their interests in the capital. This was demonstrated by the use of Apache helicopters to repel militants who came within 25 km of the airport on 6 October. IS also lacks a natural base from which to build and sustain an offensive in Baghdad given that the capital is comprisesboth Sunni and Shi’a communities.
The possible fall of Anbar illustrates the shortcomings of the current US-led offensive against IS. The absence of ground forces limits the effectiveness of air strikes. Plans to copy the success of the Anbar Awakening, which helped to defeat IS’s predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006-2007, have faltered on sectarian concerns. A proposed Sunni national guard force has yet to advance due to deep mistrust of the federal government and fears over the presence and influence of Shi’a militias who have been deployed alongside state forces to combat IS.
The loss of Anbar could, however, compel Sunni leaders into action given the unpopularity of its violent tactics and extreme ideology among some communities. The group was initially seen by many to have liberated Sunni communities from a repressive Shi’a-led federal government, but its popularity has since waned. Newly formed armed resistance groups in Mosul such as Kata’Ib al-Mosul and Harakat Ahrar al-Mosul have carried out small-scale attacks on IS positions since July 2014. However these groups lack the scale and resources to reverse IS gains in Anbar, which would require an armed force with the popular support of Sunni communities in the region.
In the north, Kurdish forces have repelled IS offensives and recaptured some lost territory, demonstrating that IS can be defeated in battle when their opponents receive adequate support, although its resources and capabilities are growing alongside the territory under its control. The fall of Anbar and the growing threat to foreign interests in Baghdad may force domestic stakeholders in Sunni and Shi’a communities and Iraq’s international partners to mount a more effective response to the militant group. This includes the possible deployment of coalition special forces to direct air strikes from forward positions. In the interim, while Baghdad will remain under government control, levels of violence in the city will increase as IS continues to make gains in predominately Sunni areas of Iraq within close proximity of the capital.