How are Iraq and the United States responding to the capture of Ramadi by ISIS?
We are seeing the Haider al-Abadi government taking the initiative by amassing some of its army units as well as a paramilitary organization known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, most of which are Shi'i, around Ramadi, trying to take over and blunt the ISIS offensive.
Since the fall of Ramadi, the United States and the Abadi government have been more in tune and are focusing on the primacy and importance of retaking Ramadi.
What are the implications of the Abadi government's growing dependence on Shi'i militias?
A big challenge for whoever will be ruling Iraq for years to come will be what to do with these popular mobilization forces, which have been trained by the Iranians and can claim a number of victories. And if they succeed in Ramadi, they will be able to say to Abadi or to a future prime minister, "We are the ones who saved your reign, we saved Baghdad and the holy Shi'i cities of Karbala and Najaf, and we are the ones who deserve a place in the decision making process."
So this is a catch-22 for Abadi. On the one hand, he cannot win the war on the ground without the popular mobilization forces, and on the other hand, if he relies too much on these units he will further marginalize the Sunni community, which has provided a welcoming environment for the likes of the Islamic State.
Do the recent advances by ISIS in Syria represent a turning point in the ongoing conflict?
ISIS is a very good tactician. I think in the case of Palmyra they have seen a weakness and have tried to take advantage of it. The trend in Syria today is definitely not in favor of the regime, but at the same time it is not necessarily in favor of ISIS. Neither the rebels, Islamist or otherwise, nor the regime are about to defeat the other side. We remain in a period of dangerous military stalemate, and it is likely to continue for some time.
What should policymakers be focusing on that has not received enough attention?
In think tanks and many intellectual circles there is more talk about state failure, whether in Syria or Iraq, and this is not reported enough. Even after we defeat ISIS, we are left with a problem of two big states in the Levant that have been hollowed out. The question then will be one of governance and how to rein in these empowered, effective militias that will eventually develop a political agenda and will demand a seat at the decision-making table.
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