As the world watches the siege of Kobani, ISIS has almost completely overrun Anbar Province, which is the largest province in Iraq and the heartland of its Sunni population. Reuters reports:
The vast desert region — where Sunni tribes rose up in 2006 and 2007 to drive out al-Qaeda with the Americans — has throughout 2014 been parcelled up, city by military camp, before the Iraqi government and U.S. forces could act.Now Anbar’s largest airbase Ain al-Asad, the Haditha Dam — a critical piece of infrastructure — and surrounding towns are encircled by Islamic State to the west from the Syrian border and to the east from militant-controlled sections of Ramadi. […]Faleh Issawi, a member of the Anbar provincial council [said,] “Eighty percent of the province is under the control of IS and the remaining 20 percent is under control of some security forces and tribal fighters.”
And yet, despite having more than 1,400 troops in Iraq, America apparently has none where the fighting is hottest. According to the Air Force Times:
There are no U.S. advisers with any Iraqi units in Anbar province, where Islamic State militants were advancing in early October and had seized control of several Sunni towns and cities.
Asked to explain the absence of American troops, officials cited a desire to keep them out of harm’s way and to avoid further entanglements, and suggested that we are just starting to ramp things up. Yet when viewed against the background of the President’s declared ambition to “degrade and ultimately destroy”, “roll back”, and “hunt down” ISIS, this lack of action as Anbar falls makes America look weak.
The news from Anbar seems characteristic of “Operation Inherent Resolve” so far; loud talk has been backed by weak airstrikes and dithering on the question of attacking Assad in Syria. Reports that we are now weighing a request to get involved in Anbar may actually reinforce the impression of weakness, suggesting that, as with Kobani, the Administration is reacting to rather than shaping events, and perhaps not doing so until it’s too late to be effective anyway.
While there are few perfect options for the mess that currently is the Middle East, it increasingly feels like we’re courting the worst of all possible options, in which we reap all the negative effects of both action and inaction.