After a six-month campaign to assert a tenuous hold over Fallujah, and the failure to fully control Ramadi or to expand the insurgency to the rest of the cities of Anbar, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is using a new tactic. The group is attacking certain cities and then storming out, as happened recently in Samarra, to distract the military efforts against it. It also seeks to control major cities, as happened in Mosul after four days of fighting with government forces who failed to keep the city after the senior security, military, and political leaders defected. But despite these gains, the Western Desert on the Iraqi-Syrian border, 300 kilometers (180 miles) west of Ramadi in Anbar Province and the main stronghold of ISIS, remains of strategic importance and is vital for the group to maintain control of the area.

In Anbar, which provides a land bridge over the border and facilitates the flow of fighters and arms to and from eastern and northeastern Syria, large swaths of which ISIS controls, the group has focused its military efforts since entering Ramadi on eliminating old tribal Awakening (Sahwa) forces under Ahmed Abu Risha and newer Awakening ones led by Mohamed al-Hayis to prevent a powerful coalition from forming against it. The clashes that followed the arrest of Member of Parliament Ahmed al-Alwani in December 2013—and the subsequent standoff between government troops and armed groups, most of whom were members of the tribe angered by Alwani’s arrest and the killing of his brother—allowed ISIS just that. It gave them a chance to move into Ramadi, taking over several neighborhoods.

After ISIS seized the suburbs of Ramadi, including Albu Bali, al-Mulahama, and Jazeerat al-Khaldiya, most of the local population fled to safer areas. However, ISIS quickly abandoned the newly conquered territory to pursue a guerrilla warfare strategy, launching constant attacks on government troops who have returned to secure the area. The Iraqi army has so far been unable to reassert control over much of the contested neighborhoods, often entering into an area only to quickly withdraw under heavy fire. At other times, ISIS will withdraw its fighters as government troops advance, only to then stage a counterattack a few hours later and reclaim it. This explains the government’s drawn-out offensive in Hayy al-Mala‘ab—despite repeated announcements that government troops have seized control of the entire area, complete with images of deployed soldiers displayed on local stations, but without any official acknowledgments of the subsequent losses of control. 

Since, ISIS has strengthened its control of the outlying Ramadi suburbs of Sufia, Albu Obaid, Albu Bali, Albu Faraj, and in some neighborhoods within the city proper, such as Hayy al-Dubbat, Hayy al-Ta’mim, Hayy al-Mala‘ab, and other neighborhoods in the main thoroughfare running through the southern part of the city and connects its eastern and western halves. Strongholds such as Hayy al-Dubbat and Hayy al-Mala‘ab have seen intense fighting between SWAT teams, local police, and the counterterrorism Golden Brigade unit, which is supported by some of the old Awakening Councils led by Ahmed Abu Risha. The new Awakening Councils, however, have been absent from the scene due to lack of government support and defections to the old Awakening Councils, especially since Abu Risha ended a year-long feud with the federal government to join forces against ISIS in December.

Following a successful entry into Fallujah in January 2014, which ISIS wanted as a stepping stone for attacks against Baghdad, the group formed an implicit agreement with tribal insurgents and the local military council, which includes armed former opposition factions and some former army officers. According to this agreement, ISIS can be present in Fallujah proper but may not launch revenge attacks against public property, former officials, party leaders, or former Awakening members, while also refraining from labeling any others as infidels (takfir), raising its flag, or forcing others to swear allegiance. The agreement also dictates that ISIS is to act in full coordination with the military council and the tribal insurgents in everything related to military action or civil administration, and cannot unilaterally claim credit for any attack on government troops. 

The group’s presence in Fallujah gives the government and Ramadi Awakening Councils a pretext to attack the city, possibly weakening the Sunnis’ position nationally and regionally. Even if the army continues to press its offensive indefinitely, it will not curb the militants’ attacks or capabilities, due to the insurgents’ superior combat experience dating back to the Saddam Hussein era and insurgency training acquired during the U.S. occupation. The government troops, in comparison, are largely inexperienced units and are highly dependent on the militias including the Badr Organization, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the Mahdi army, among others.

The recent fall of Mosul will, at least in the short term, allow ISIS greater access and mobility in Syria and Iraq. It will also allow them control of the oil pipeline between Kirkuk and the Turkish port of Ceyhan, in addition to water and electric resources through the Mosul Dam. But despite these gains, ISIS still faces serious challenges in Anbar, including the potential for a broader tribal-government coalition that could push it out of the city. A political deal with the federal government to facilitate this coalition, if reached, would almost certainly lead local military councils and tribal insurgents to switch sides. The latter, despite their deep mistrust of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, would prefer to be reintegrated into state institutions than to harbor a terrorist organization. This is compounded by the losses ISIS has faced in Syria, where the Free Syrian Army and some Islamist factions including Jabhat al-Nusra are pushing back against them, which will restrict the flow of militants into Anbar. In recent months, ISIS has ceded chunks of territory in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor Province on the Iraqi border, with most of its fighters retreating to Raqqa Province, deeper within Syria. Other fighters have apparently crossed into Iraq, as suggested by the killing of top ISIS leader Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Kuwaiti near Ramadi in late March. 

Recent events notwithstanding, local media stations have been downplaying ISIS’s gains in Anbar, something the group seems to welcome because they fear an acknowledgment of its presence could hasten a tribal-government alliance against it. In the meantime, ISIS is seeking to mend its relations with the Sunni community, while establishing cells within Sunni areas that would allow it greater future strike capabilities and give it a chance for more daily interactions that could improve its local image—all while fighting the Shia-dominated army and those Sunnis it labels “apostates” in the police and Awakening Councils. 

Leaders in the Sunni community, including tribal leaders and religious scholars, worry ISIS might reestablish itself in the areas it controlled in 2005–2006, not because they fear the group would impose its strict interpretation of Islam, but for fear of reprisals against the Sunni community for their cooperation with U.S. troops in fighting ISIS between 2006 and 2008. This worry also applies to many former armed Sunni opposition factions—including Hamas of Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance (JAMI), and the Islamic Army—which at the time joined the U.S.-allied Awakening Councils.

Already on the defensive in Syria—standing alone against the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other factions—ISIS cannot afford heavy losses in the battles in Fallujah and Ramadi. As ISIS seems to be fully aware, it is likely to be on the losing end should the military council and tribal insurgents join forces with the federal government against it. For this reason, the group is likely to pour new fighters into Anbar Province. 

Raed El-Hamed is an Iraqi journalist and member of the Iraqi Journalists’ Syndicate. He is a regular contributor to Sada.

This article was translated from Arabic.