The Liberation of Ramadi: The situation on the ground and significance

"Victory pictures" of the Iraqi army's liberation of the city of Ramadi from ISIS.

"Victory pictures" of the Iraqi army's liberation of the city of Ramadi from ISIS.

Map of the control of Ramadi, updated to December 28, 2015: 55% of the city has been cleared of ISIS operatives (green), about 20% is still controlled by ISIS (black), and about 25% has been designated as confrontation zones (pink) (Al-Sumaria TV, December 28, 2015).

Map of the control of Ramadi, updated to December 28, 2015: 55% of the city has been cleared of ISIS operatives (green), about 20% is still controlled by ISIS (black), and about 25% has been designated as confrontation zones (pink) (Al-Sumaria TV, December 28, 2015).

Houses destroyed in Ramadi (Al-Jazeera, December 26, 2015)

Houses destroyed in Ramadi (Al-Jazeera, December 26, 2015)

Refugees from Ramadi in a tent city on the outskirts of Baghdad (Al-Jazeera, January 1, 2015).

Refugees from Ramadi in a tent city on the outskirts of Baghdad (Al-Jazeera, January 1, 2015).


1.   On December 28, 2015, after seven days of fighting against ISIS operatives, the Iraqi army, with air support from the United States and the coalition, took over the center of the city of Ramadi where the governmental buildings are located. So far the Iraqi army has apparently taken control most of the city (about 70%-80%). However, there are still pockets of resistance both in the city and the surrounding areas whereISIS operatives continue waging guerilla warfare. It is too early to estimate how much time will be needed to expel the ISIS operatives from the city and surrounding areas, but the Iraqi army, with the support of the Sunni militias, still has a long road ahead.


2. Between 500 and 700 ISIS operatives defended Ramadi against an Iraqi army order of battle of about 10,000 soldiers, including an elite counter-terrorism task force (with the support of about 5,000 Sunni militia fighters). According to the Iraqi and Western media, about 250 ISIS fighters (including senior officers) were killed in the fighting, several dozen operatives fled the city, and several hundred are still entrenched in the city and its outskirts. The fighting caused considerable damage to the city, including buildings blown up by ISIS and aerial attacks carried out by the United States and its coalition allies.

3.   After the conquest of the city center Iraqi army forces gradually advanced to neighborhoods where ISIS operatives remained barricaded. ISIS's guerilla warfare and the booby traps its operatives left in various structures in the city have delayed the Iraqi army's complete takeover of the city. ISIS continues waging guerilla warfare against the Iraqi army in and around the city, especially to the north and northeast. ISIS attacks convoys, sends suicide bombers to military facilities and uses car bombs to attack the Iraqi army. It also attempts to exert pressure on the army in other locations in Anbar Province (such as the areas of Haditha and Al-Sarsar Lake).

4.   Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi was quick to go to Ramadi for a victory visit. He praised the Iraqi security forces, called the conquest of Mosul the next strategic goal, and declared that the end of 2016 would see ISIS completely removed from Iraq. The United States and the Western and Arab countries in the anti-ISIS coalition congratulated the Iraqi prime minister on his army's achievement. Iran also congratulated the Iraqi government, but was apparently annoyed that the Shi'ite militias has not had a significant role in liberating the city.

5.   The expulsion from Ramadi and the surrounding areas of the presence of ISIS operatives, and the physical reconstruction of the city and the return of the Iraqis who fled, are liable to take a considerable amount of time, as a great deal of damage was done to both the city and its residents.[1] ISIS left many IEDs and booby traps behind. For example, according to an American intelligence officer, Iraqi forces found about three hundred IEDs planted along 150 meters in the region of the administration buildings in the center of the city. Once they had been neutralized and removed, more were found. The officer estimated it would take a long time for the Iraqi forces to complete cleansing the city (Indianexpress, December 31, 2015).

Significance of the Liberation of Ramadi

6.   Ramadi, located about 120 kilometers (about 75 miles) due west of Baghdad, is the capital of Anbar Province. Lying on the Euphrates, it is a strategic junction on the roads west to Jordan and Syria, and an important commercial center. When the American army was in Iraq, and later, Ramadi turned into a jihadist stronghold. In 2004 about half a million Iraqis lived in Ramadi, but most of them fled the fighting, some of them to the areas outside Baghdad.

7.   ISIS captured Ramadi from the Iraqi army on May 15, 2015, in what retrospectively was its greatest territorial gain in Iraq after the conquest of Mosul (in June 2014).[2] The Iraqi army was subsequently forced out of most of Anbar Province, but a few enclaves remained under its control, subject to ongoing guerilla warfare (see below).

8.   From a military perspective, the balance of force during the liberation of Ramadi was clearly in Iraqi army favor. That was because only a relatively small force of [hundreds of] ISIS operatives was in the city, and the Iraqi army order of battle was about 10,000 soldiers, with support from the Sunni militias American and close coalition air support. The lesson that repeated itself in Ramadi was that most of ISIS's strength has been in mobile fighting, guerilla warfare, and surprise attacks, exploiting governmental vacuums and the low morale of its opponents. However, when ISIS has been forced to defend itself against a larger, better equipped military power with high morale and support from the local population, it has suffered defeats, as happened in both Iraq (Ramadi, Baiji and Tikrit) and Syria (Kobanî and Tel al-Abiad).

9.   The liberation of Ramadi from ISIS (assuming it is completed) is an important achievement for the prestige and military capabilities of the Iraqi army and the American-led Western coalition. It is the first time since the fall of Mosul in June 2014 that the Iraqi army has conquered and occupied an important strategic city, the same city from which Iraqi soldiers fled seven and a half months ago. The fighting against ISIS in Ramadi included the use of tactics of the war on terrorism provided by the United States, accompanied by close coalition air support.


10.   For ISIS, the loss of Ramadi is a military and media blow that increases the pressure exerted on it and joins the series of failures that began in Iraq and Syria in 2015:

1)  In Iraq several key Sunni cities were captured from ISIS by the Iraqi army with support from the Shi'ite and Sunni militias. They include Ramadi (still a work in progress), and Baiji and Tikrit to the north of Baghdad. In northwestern Iraq the city of Sinjar and its surroundings fell to Kurdish forces (the Peshmerga). Fallujah, a jihadist stronghold, is currently encircled by the Iraqi army and cut off from ISIS's other forces and backup. Mosul, the core of ISIS's presence in Iraq, is as yet untouched, but the other defeats may erode ISIS's power there.

2)  In Syria ISIS lost important regions near the Turkish border (Kobanî and Tel al-Abiad), allowing the Kurdish forces (the YPG) to control a territorial continuum along most of the Syrian-Turkish border. The Kurds also recently conquered the important Tishrin Dam and nearby power plant on the banks of the Euphrates, south of the city of Kobanî. ISIS suffered defeats in other locations: east and northeast of Aleppo (where the Syrian army, with support from Iran, broke through the blockade of the Kweyris military air base); south of Aleppo and southeast of Homs, where the Syrian army established control of the rural regions; the southern Golan Heights (where the ISIS-affiliated brigade of the Martyrs of al-Yarmuk Forces was weakened); and in the area south of Damascus (from where, under UN protection, ISIS operatives and their families are to be evacuated).

What Next?

11. The liberation of Ramadi, assuming it is fully completed, is a milestone in the campaign against ISIS and at the same time a test case for the Iraqi government and the American-led coalition. If implemented correctly, it is likely to serve as a step towards retaking other cities and regions in Anbar Province and seriously erode the support ISIS gets from the Sunni population in western Iraq. On the other hand, the failure of the Iraqi regime to quickly complete the conquest of Ramadi and its surrounding areas and to turn it into a role model for reconstruction and rehabilitation is liable to have negative consequences for the future of the campaign against ISIS.


12. To profit from its success in Ramadi the Iraqi regime (supported by the United States) must work intensively at the following levels:

  • 1)  The local level: Locally the challenge for the Iraqi regime will be to complete the liberation of Ramadi, return its population, rebuild the infrastructure and turn it into a model city of reconstruction for its Sunni population. However, ISIS can be expected to attempt terrorist attacks and wage guerilla warfare to prevent the normalization of life in Ramadi and to foster tensions between the Iraqi regime and the local population. The Iraqi army will have to completely remove the remaining ISIS operatives from the city and its surroundings but with sensitivity and exact intelligence, to prevent unnecessary harm from coming to the local population and to enable it to rehabilitate itself. The Iraqi regime, with the support of the United States, will also have to allot funds to repair the infrastructure and return the city's residents. The regime will have to do that while attempting to overcome its Shi'ite character (which in the past made it difficult to deal with the Sunni population which was liberated from ISIS, as in Tikrit).
  • 2)  The regional level: The Iraqi security forces, with American support, will have to use the liberation of Ramadi as leverage to restore its control over all of Anbar Province:

    • A.  The hold of the Iraqi army and the Sunni tribes that support it is limited to a number of cities and military bases in Anbar Province, among them Habanniyah, Al-Baghdadi, Ain Assad air base, Haditha, Amiriyat Fallujah and Al-Nakhib (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, May 18, 2015). The Iraqi army will have to systematically clean out Anbar Province, push out the remaining ISIS operatives and create a territorial continuum between the areas under its control. The regime will then have to establish its control over the main route along the Euphrates which serves as ISIS's logistic lifeline and cut off its connection to Syria.
    • B.  ISIS is still strongly entrenched throughout most of Anbar Province and it will be difficult to uproot it. It is still supported by some of the Sunni tribes that regard the Iraqi regime as Shi'ite and hostile to the Sunni population. Militarily, ISIS's control of Mosul and eastern Syria enables it to bring reinforcements to Anbar Province to protect is strongholds and initiate attacks on the Iraqi army.
    • C.  The Iraqi army's top priority will now have to be the city of Fallujah, which lies between Ramadi and Baghdad (about 56 kilometers, or 35 miles, east of Baghdad), now cut off from the core of ISIS control. Senior figures in the Iraqi administration and army have already stated that the Iraqi army will focus its efforts on liberating Fallujah once the takeover of Ramadi has been completed. Even during the liberation of Ramadi the Iraqi army increased its encirclement of Fallujah, which has become a symbol of jihadist presence in Iraq, to prevent reinforcements arriving for ISIS from there.

3)  At the governmental level: Anbar Province is Sunni, and most of its inhabitants are still hostile to the Shi'ite regime in Baghdad (with the result that it became a base for ISIS supporters). The Baghdad regime will have to make an effort to placate the Sunni population by reconstructing Ramadi and turning it into a role model for other Sunni cities. It will also have to allocate local authority to the Sunni tribal population and avoid the mistakes of former Prime Minister Adnan al-Maliki regarding the Sunni population (with overall importance for Iraq that goes beyond the interests of the Sunni population in Anbar Province[3]).

13. The Iraqi prime minister and other spokesmen have stated that after the conquest of Ramadi the next strategic objective will be Mosul, and that ridding Iraq of ISIS will be completed by the end of 2016Such statements are probably too optimistic and the result of the euphoria of the liberation of most of Ramadi. However, while ISIS has in fact suffered blows, it is still firmly entrenched in Iraq, not only in Anbar Province but in other Sunni provinces as well. In the territories it controls it has the support of some of the Sunni population, which regards the Iraqi regime as Shi'ite and hostile to Sunnis. ISIS can therefore be expected to offer determined resistance to Iraqi army attempts to expel it from its strongholds in Anbar Province and in Iraq in general. It is also extremely doubtful that the Iraqi army has the capability to rid all Iraq of ISIS presence or that the regime can enlist the support of the general Sunni population.


[1]According to initial media reports, more than 3,000 buildings were destroyed, thousands of others were damaged, and the infrastructure (electricity, water, sewage facilities) was destroyed.
[2]Ramadi was conquered on May 15, 2015, when ISIS operatives took over the government buildings and most of the rest of the city. The attack began with the detonation of a car bomb near the headquarters of the Iraqi forces, after which ISIS operatives broke into the compound. ISIS also attacked a military base in the western part of the city and then took over all of Ramadi. The Iraqi army defense of the city collapsed and the Iraqi forces withdrew from the region.
[3]See the article by Zalmay Khalilzad, who served in the American Department of Defense and was the American ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN, "Ramadi is an important test case as Baghdad looks to recover Fallujah and Mosul,", January 1, 201).