U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, commander of International Security Assistance Force and commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, addresses service members during a re-enlistment ceremony at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, July 4, 2011.

BAGHDAD – In a recent interview, David Petraeus described the double loss of the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the ancient Syrian site of Palmyra as a ‘significant setback’, but a reversible one. A chief architect of the ‘surge’ of American troops during the Iraq war in 2007, he has a long record of emphasising the importance of engaging with the population in what threatens to become a sectarian civil war.

This comes after US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter claimed that Iraqi troops in Ramadi lost the ‘will to fight,’ sentiments echoed by President Barack Obama. The initial gains by Islamic State last summer, particularly in Mosul, were made at a huge numerical disadvantage, a victory of terror and propaganda over Iraqi forces suffering from poor morale and desertion. Whether Iraq’s new prime minister Haider al-Abadi can restore morale by making the Sunni and Kurdish minorities feel included in the new Iraq is not yet certain. Petraeus is optimistic, but stresses that “they will only fight if they have good leadership.”

These new victories by the Islamist group are a significant turnaround after its loss of control of Tikrit and Kobane earlier this year, which had led to hopes that IS was being forced into retreat. It showed that IS is still capable of significant gains; Ramadi has a population in the hundreds of thousands, and is capital of the western Al Anbar Governorate. Earlier, the Ramadi dam on the river Euphrates was shut, both depriving government-held areas in the east of water and giving IS greater freedom of movement to reach them.

As an almost entirely Sunni region, Al Anbar is clearly a critical test of the ability of the Iraqi government and international coalition’s efforts to give disaffected Sunnis reason to become part of the new Iraq. Whether the 2007 surge deployed against predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq can be repeated with a purely Iraqi force, under markedly different circumstances, is not nearly as clear.

 – Alex Smith, Correspondent (Politics)