Wednesday, December 24, 2014

ISIS Offensives in Ramadi City and Al-Asad Airbase in Al-Anbar, Iraq

By Jessica Lewis, Ahmed Ali, and Sinan Adnan

The contest for Ramadi, the capital city of Anbar province in western Iraq, is reaching a critical juncture. ISIS is now launching attacks upon the Anbar Operations Command headquarters, the 8thIraqi Army Brigade headquarters, and the government complex in the center of the city as of December 2014. Anti-ISIS forces, including the Iraqi Security Forces and tribal fighters, are concentrated there. The fall of these locations to ISIS would mean the effective fall of Ramadi, a major objective for ISIS as key terrain on the Euphrates River and the home of the Anbar Awakening. ISIS has reinforced its Anbar operations from its bases in Syria, and is maneuvering an armored convoy toward Al-Asad Airbase. Coalition forces have been engaging in numerous airstrikes against ISIS in order to protect this vital city and base, which protects American as well as Iraqi Forces. 

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), along with other insurgent groups, has contested control of Ramadi since January 2014 when the Iraqi military withdrew from major urban centers in Anbar. ISIS gained full control of Fallujah, but never succeeded in controlling Ramadi. Since then, the Iraqi Army (IA), Iraqi Police (IP), and anti-ISIS tribal fighters have clashed with ISIS in Ramadi, and cycles of violence have continued in the city almost without interruption. Ramadi is the capital of Anbar and representative of the enduring control of the state within the Sunni heartland of Iraq. Its defense demonstrates successful cooperation between ISF units and Sunni tribal militias. Ramadi is also therefore an enduring objective of ISIS, in order to break this relationship, seize territory from the state, and consolidate its own physical space for its Caliphate. The ISIS offensive to establish complete control of the Euphrates River Valley is therefore still underway, with Ramadi as its principal objective. But the campaign to defend Ramadi is also escalating, with promise to deny this key terrain to ISIS in the long term.

As of December 23, the ISF and tribal militias have succeeded in preventing ISIS from breaching the fortified defenses of the Ramadi government complex, the Anbar Operations Command (AOC), and 8th IA Brigade headquarters. ISIS established control of adjacent neighborhoods in November 2014, and ISIS has launched attacks into the citys main fortifications several times over the last six weeks. At the present time, ISIS controls several Ramadi neighborhoods proximate to these key locations inside the city center. But the citys primary defenses are holding, and the ISF still maintains critical ground lines of communication into the city center. The fight for Ramadi is nevertheless tied to the broader fight for Anbar, in which ISIS is leveraging freedom of movement in the desert to maneuver past ISF defenses. Lack of progress in Ramadi may cause ISIS to project greater force in Haditha and Baghdadi in western Anbar in order to split the attention of the ISF. Baghdadi village is immediately adjacent to the strategic Al-Asad airbase in central Anbar province, and the integrity of the base is the lynchpin of ISFs Anbar campaign. The ISF campaign for Ramadi must therefore hold Haditha and Al-Asad airbase while the Ramadi campaign neutralizes ISIS in that zone in order to exploit a widening gap in ISIS control and prevent ISIS from reestablishing itself in central Anbar.

ISIS attacks in Anbar since November 2014 have demonstrated the continued ability to launch simultaneous attacks. In outer Anbar, ISIS has projected strength from areas under its control west of Rawa and Ana towards Haditha. Separate ISIS elements south of Fallujah continued to attack ISF elements along the road to Jurf al-Sakhar. ISIS also launched simultaneous ground offensives on Haditha and Amiriyat al-Fallujah on November 4, indicating the physical breadth of its linked Anbar campaign. Between Rawa and Fallujah, ISIS controls the city of Hit, but Haditha, Al-Asad airbase, and Ramadi stand in the way of ISIS full control of the Euphrates. ISIS maintains freedom of maneuver in the desert areas on both sides of the middle Euphrates, and it is possible that ISIS brings in additional support from outer Anbar and Syria to the interior when it designates main objectives such as Ramadi.

Al-Asad airbase lies between Hit and Haditha, and the free movement of ISIS past this position calls into question the ability of the ISF to project force from Al-Asad and establish broader security in Anbar. U.S. military personnel are also on site at Al-Asad airbase to support the ISF mission there. But ISIS cannot control Anbar while Al-Asad airbase stands, and Ramadi will likely withstand ISIS assaults while ground lines of communication connecting the town to Al-Asad remain intact. The contest for control of the Euphrates is therefore measured in large part by the status of Al-Asad airbase and its continued access to remote ISF positions in Haditha and Ramadi.

This calls greater attention to recent events in the immediate vicinity of Al-Asad airbase, which suggest ISIS intent to neutralize ISF elements within the base, thereby limiting their ability to support Anbar operations such as the defense of Ramadi or Haditha. ISIS and the ISF engaged in clashes in the Baghdadi area just outside Al-Asad airbase several times in October and early November 2014. On October 8, the ISF launched operations to clear areas in Baghdadi, indicating their concern of ISIS presence in this area. On October 19, ISIS attacked in the vicinity of Baghdadi, and the ISF repelled the attack. On October 26, ISIS reportedly launched shells containing chlorine into areas near Baghdadi, though the shells did not explode. The ISF and members from the Obadi tribe also launched an attack to clear areas between Hit and Haditha on October 30, which bracket Al-Asad airbase to the east and west, and relieved besieged members from the Albu Nimr tribe. On November 4, the ISF launched an operation to clear an ISIS rocket-launching staging area in Hit. ISIS and ISF elements likely remained engaged in this sector while adjacent ISIS forces began to conduct shaping operations around Ramadi.

As of October 5, the ISF in Ramadi had reportedly withdrawn from the streets to primary fortified positions within the city, namely the headquarters of the 8th brigade, the Anbar Operations Command, and the government complex in central Ramadi. Before mounting large-scale ground offensives in Ramadi, ISIS took measures to early November 2014 to set conditions by attempting to isolate ISF and tribal militias from supplies and reinforcements outside the city. ISIS attacked the Albu Itha area northeast of Ramadi on November 7, possibly with forces from outer Anbar or Thar Thar, but this attack was repelled by ISF and tribal forces. Albu Itha is adjacent to the Ramadi-Baghdad highway, a critical ISF supply route connecting Al-Asad airbase, Ramadi, and Baghdad. The ISF was able to keep this line of communication open. ISIS detonated a VBIED against an ISF checkpoint 35 km southwest of the city the following day, likely a second attempt to isolate Ramadi from that direction. Airstrikes reportedly targeted ISIS vehicles and a unit in the vicinity of Ramadi on November 7 and between November 7 and 10, which may have had a temporary dampening effect.

One week later, ISIS attacked ISF forces from the east of Ramadi in the al-Majar area south of Habaniya on November 17-18. ISIS likely intended to isolate Ramadi from these forces and prevent their reinforcement of the AOC. Meanwhile, west of Ramadi near Al-Asad airbase, heavy clashes took place on November 17 between ISIS and ISF forces, including an ISIS attack to destroy the Juba Bridge. ISIS continued to apply pressure near Al-Asad airbase on November 19 by again targeting the Juba area with mortars. These attacks indicate that ISIS forces attacking Ramadi from the east are distinct from those attacking near Al-Asad airbase, but they leave open the possibility that the ISIS forces attacking Ramadi from the north may move freely between Bagdhadi and Ramadi. ISIS additionally detonated a Suicide VBIED (SVBIED) on November 20 to destroy the Albu Faraj bridge north of Ramadi, thereby isolating Ramadi from the north with limited ground forces. ISIS thereby set conditions to attack the city from the north, southwest, and east, with embedded forces projecting from within Ramadi city itself.

ISIS had control of neighborhoods inside Ramadi by November 2014, especially southwest of the government complex. As of November 20, 2014, these neighborhoods included Hawz Tamim and Anbar University, all in southwestern Ramadi. ISIS launched a new phase of its campaign to capture the Ramadi city center on November 21 by attacking the city center from multiple axes, including the Tamim neighborhood, reaching the government complex and the Andalus neighborhood in the heart of the city. Clashes continued throughout Ramadi on November 22, though the government complex was not breached. ISIS also escalated attacks in the eastern Ramadi neighborhood of Sjariya on November 24, projecting force from outside the city to isolate ISF forces in Ramadi from eastern reinforcements. Two more airstrikes targeted ISIS vehicles in Ramadi between November 21 and November 24. A third report from the ground on November 26 described coalition airstrikes against an ISIS convoy moving from the Ramadi desert into Ramadi city, consistent with a separate report that 1,000 ISIS fighters attacked Ramadi on November 26. An estimated 300 tribal fighters reportedly arrived in Ramadi that day to clear the neighborhoods of Hawz and Mualimin, while the local government called for more ground troops. This attack corresponded with a lack of comparable activity in the vicinity of Baghdadi, suggesting that ISIS may have allocated resources to Ramadi from this area.

One Anbar Provincial Council official described the November activity in Ramadi as the largest attack since the beginning of 2014. Airstrikes appeared to become a more synchronized part of the ground defense of Ramadi at this time. On November 27, a report emerged indicating that security forces withdrew from Hawz  in southern Ramadi in apparent preparation for 10 unspecified airstrikes targeting ISIS in Hawz. Hawz was contested after the beginning of 2014; and it appears that ISIS established full control by early September 2014. This attack demonstrates that ISIS was still concentrated in Hawz neighborhood by this time, situated just south of the government complex. On November 29, clashes were reported in the Hawz, Bakir, and Mualimin areas, all in the southern part of Ramadi near the government complex. The same day, reinforcements arrived to strengthen security around the complex, and a separate report indicates that clearing operations opened the road between Habaniya and Ramadi from the east the same day. On November 30, forces from the 2ndRapid Reaction Brigade of the IP clashed with ISIS and thwarted an SVBIED attack on the Brigades HQ in Hawz, indicating that Hawz was no longer entirely under ISIS control. Reinforcements arrived, according to the commander of the IP in Anbar, but he insisted that more were still needed.

The ISF took measures to destroy ISIS positions within Ramadi on December 1, expanding clearing operations to multiple neighboring areas on December 3. They designated multiple target neighborhoods, including Hawz, Hay al-Aramil, Iskan, and Tamim in southern Ramadi; Sjariya east of Ramadi; and Albu Al-Jassim area to the northwest, indicating that ISIS still had strong presence there by this time. On December 4, ISIS attacked the HQ of the 2nd Rapid Response Brigade of the IP in Hawz, the third attack on the HQ in four days. The attack, which was repelled, indicated a shift in ISIS targeting from the government complex itself to a local security headquarters, which suggests that ISIS had begun to lose ground in southern Ramadi. There were no reports of clashes immediately following this operation; December 4-8 witnessed a lull in reported ISIS activities in Ramadi. One local official described the situation on December 7 as stable, highlighting the role of airstrikes. Airstrikes were reported by CENTCOM on December 2-3, and also December 5-8, but ISIS resumed its offensive in Ramadi afterwards. This indicates that ISIS used the nine-day period from November 29-December 8, 2014 to reset, not to change course.

ISIS launched a spectacular attack on the Ramadi government complex on December 8 that was repelled by the security forces, who killed six suicide bombers targeting the complex. The Anbar IP commander stated that coalition airstrikes targeted ISIS that day in four positions in the areas of Tamim and 5 km southwest of Ramadi, possibly suppressing the ISIS assault force targeting the government complex. ISIS launched a second attack on December 10 in the northern part of the city, targeting the AOC headquarters from the Albu Thiab area northwest of Ramadi, and thereby indicating the enduring presence of ISIS on multiple sides of the city. Two additional airstrikes reportedly destroyed an ISIS armored vehicle and a heavy weapon on December 8-10, likely in response to the second ISIS assault. The airstrikes did not prevent ISIS from escalating. On December 11, ISIS launched a third attack, the largest of the three, targeting the government complex from four axes. The attack was not successful. But ISIS attacked the government complex from Hawz, Tamim, Sjariya, and Albu Thiab/Albu Risha, all areas where the ISF had conducted clearing operations in early December, indicating enduring ISIS freedom of attack in these sectors. On December 11, ISIS also retook control of the Mahbubiyah area northwest of Hit, indicating their ability to conduct simultaneous offensives in Hit near Al-Asad airbase and Ramadi with separate forces applied to two objectives.

Since then, ISIS activity outside of Ramadi indicates continued ISIS freedom of movement and attack in the area. On December 13, ISIS took control of Wafa sub-district on the road between Ramadi and Rutba at the road junction that also leads to Hit and Al-Asad airbase. On December 14, Sahwa leader Wissam al-Hardan stated that ISIS deployed 400 of its members to the Albu Itha area, indicating preparations to attack from the northeast. On December 14, the ISF also defused a VBIED near a gas station in al-Baghdadi. Such attacks are capable of applying pressure to Al-Asad airbase with minimal manpower. The area northeast of Ramadi appeared to deteriorate further, with one report suggesting on December 15 that the Albu Itha area was one of few areas still withstanding ISIS control in the northeast Ramadi quadrant. This area, critical to the sustainment of the 8thIA and AOC headquarters, is necessary to hold the city, and ISIS may be attacking it in order to limit ISF movement between Al-Asad airbase and Ramadi from this direction. On December 16, ISIS detonated an SVEST in Sjariya, the area east of the city along the highway connecting Ramadi to Habaniya, indicating their continued campaign to isolate the city from multiple directions. On December 17, ISIS launched IED attacks adjacent to a highway west of Ramadi, indicating enduring access to the west side of the city and intent to disrupt the ISF there as well.

Although coalition airstrikes were reported near Ramadi in the December 15-18 timeframe, the Anbar IP commander on December 20 cited the absence of airstrikes in the intervening period as the reason why ISIS had the opportunity to renew its ISIS offensive. ISIS launched another attack from multiple directions upon the Ramadi city center on December 20. But ISF forces appeared to have again re-opened the road to Habaniya as of December 20, though the eastern neighborhood of Sjariya remains contested. At present, the ISF still appear to hold Ramadis fortified positions. One Anbar Provincial Council member, Jasim al-Halbusi, stated on December 22 that the ISF had made significant advances in Sjariya and Hawz, adding that reinforcements had arrived. On December 23, the ISF reportedly cleared Wafa sub-district west of Ramadi of ISIS. But success in Anbar is measured not only in terms of the status of the Ramadi capital; but also in terms of the operational depth that the ISF can launch from Al-Asad airbase. 

As of December 23, it appears that ISIS is preparing to mount a large offensive in the vicinity of Hit and al-Baghdadi, immediately adjacent to Al-Asad airbase. An anonymous security source stated on December 23 that an estimated 300 ISIS fighters moved from Hit towards al-Baghdadi, with further reinforcements arriving in Rawa from ISIS-controlled Syria. The source also claimed that airstrikes have concentrated upon ISIS gatherings in the vicinity of Al-Asad airbase. An additional report indicated that ISIS attacked the al-Walid border crossing in far western Anbar from the Syrian side on December 23, indicating the increasing attention that ISIS is applying to Anbar in the context of its broader war. The ISF campaign in Anbar is integral to the demonstrated success of the ISF and Sunni tribal alliance that will set conditions for future political unity in Iraq. It is vital that Al-Asad airbase and Ramadi hold in order to open new opportunities for this military alliance to produce political, as well as military, victory over ISIS in Iraq. 

The authors would like to thank Omar Abdullah for his research support to this piece.