Here’s the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (though not for much longer), General Martin Dempsey, in April, when Ramadi seemed like it was on the verge of falling to ISIS (the situation has since stabilized somewhat but the city is still at risk):
If the Iraqi city of Ramadi, which is under imminent threat from ISIS, fell into jihadist hands, would it matter?
According to Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not really. The bigger threat, he says, is the other city ISIS is moving in on—the oil-rich central city of Baiji.
“Baiji is part of the Iraqi oil infrastructure,” Dempsey said Thursday. “Once the Iraqis have full control of Baiji, they will control all of their oil infrastructure, both north and south, and deny ISIL the ability to generate revenue through oil. So Baiji is a more strategic target. And that’s why the focus right now is in fact on Baiji.”
Now it looks like Baiji, including its oil refinery, is at serious risk of falling to an ISIS offensive, and here’s what the Pentagon has to say:
Despite the recent focus by Iraqi and American officials on the importance of defending and holding the Iraqi oil refinery at Baiji, the Defense Department made a sharp reversal on Wednesday, claiming that the site doesn’t actually matter as they used to say.
The refinery is “not strategically any more significant than any other piece of ground” in Iraq, Defense Department spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday.
There is propaganda value in downplaying any ISIS successes so as to dampen its ability to recruit new fighters, but in both of these cases Aesop would be proud. Of course Ramadi is important; it’s the capital and largest city in Anbar Province. On the other hand, the way the conflict is set up right now, Ramadi is practically indefensible. It’s surrounded by territory controlled by ISIS — Anbar is pretty firmly in ISIS’s possession — so it’s actually somewhat surprising that the government forces there have held out this long, even with US/coalition air power helping them. Of course Baiji is important as well, particularly insofar as control of the refinery is a big economic deal both to Baghdad and the “Caliphate.” After it lost Tikrit, ISIS put all of its effort in Salahuddin Province into taking Baiji, so it’s not all that surprising that the fighting there is just as fierce as it was around Tikrit.
For what it’s worth, though, if you’re prioritizing the two I think Dempsey was right (and to be fair to him, he never said that Ramadi was unimportant, just not as important as Baiji). Baiji’s refinery makes it more critical than Ramadi, and strategically the fact of the matter is that the Iraqi army probably isn’t ready to try to fight ISIS in Anbar right now anyway.