The Fight for Fallujah’s Highway 11
The crucial highway linking Jordan to Baghdad runs right at the heart of Fallujah — and retaking it could keep Jordan from economic collapse.
When the Iraqi army pushed the Islamic State out of the isolated desert town of Rutba last month, the fight received little attention. Yet the dusty settlement, wedged into a corner of Iraq close to the Jordanian and Syrian borders, is a prize Iraqi and Jordanian officials have been desperate to win, and a significant chunk of the Hashemite Kingdom’s struggling economy depends on it.
If Rutba can be secured, a nearby highway chokepoint and border crossing may open up the moribund Jordanian export economy, and provide some relief for government coffers that have relied heavily on foreign aid. In many ways, the taking of Rutba — and eventually, Fallujah — underscores the very real economic realities of Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State.
Given the anemic Jordanian economy, the hundreds of millions of dollars in cargo that once moved through the Rutba corridor could help stabilize some of the wobbly internal dynamics inside Jordan, as it struggles to support well over 1 million Syrian refugees.
That is also the context under which Baghdad launched its assault on the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah in late May, since the city also sits astride Highway 11 to Jordan. Fallujah is the insurgency’s last major bastion in Iraq’s western Anbar province and has served as a jumping-off point for recent Islamic State attacks on the capital.
Having Rutba and Fallujah in hand not only protects the western approaches to Baghdad, but reopens the ground corridor to Jordan and creates “strategic depth to Jordanian and Saudi security,” said one former senior military officer with multiple tours in Iraq.
“At the same time, it pulled a major portion of the Sunni population back into the sphere of Baghdad through the cooperative relationship with the Anbari governor, who’s been doing a great job in this area,” the officer added.
Jordan’s annual exports to Iraq have bottomed out, falling from $1.2 billion to $690 million in 2015, in large part due to the closure of the Trebil border crossing near Rutba in July 2015. After the Islamic State captured the town in June 2014, insurgents began imposing heavy taxes — as much as $400 per truck — on importers brave enough to make the cross-border trip.
“If the roads are secure, Jordanian drivers are champing at the bit to send goods back into Iraq,” said David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute. Those truck drivers and their economic impact are “a key node of support,” for the monarchy in Jordan, he added. With the unemployment rate in Jordan currently hovering just over 14 percent, any increase in work would be a huge boost to the kingdom’s faltering economy.
American military officials note Rutba has also been used as a waypoint for Islamic State fighters from Syria and “a support zone to stage personnel and equipment,” for use elsewhere in Anbar province, said one U.S. military official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Part of that pipeline led directly to Fallujah, and then on to Baghdad.
Washington’s focus since the start of its bombing campaign against the Islamic State in August 2014 has been on retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which fell to the insurgent group two years ago. American advisors, special operations troops, ground artillery, and airstrikes are supporting the Iraqi Army’s 15th Division and Kurdish Peshmerga forces as they mass near the city for the coming assault.
Ultimately, “Mosul is the grand prize, but on the path of Mosul there are many smaller objectives that need to be addressed,” the official said.
But before that fight kicks off, Baghdad is looking for some breathing room on its southern and western flanks. Jordan’s economy has traditionally been heavily reliant on ground transport, and Schenker said hundreds of trucks daily drove on the highway into Iraq, up until the capture of Rutba and Fallujah in 2014. Jordanian truck drivers are currently scrambling for work. It’s unclear if the Iraqi army and Shiite and Sunni militias will be able to police and secure the roads through Anbar, which is still dotted with Islamic State enclaves, “but they have a better shot of doing this after the offensive,” on Fallujah is complete, he added.
Iraqi forces, led by Iraq’s elite counterterrorism service, managed to push into Fallujah on May 30 to retake it from several hundreds of Islamic State fighters who seized the Sunni city in January 2014. Securing Fallujah — which U.S. forces fought two bloody battles in 2004 to subdue — would be the last stop on the road to Baghdad from the Jordanian border
A large-scale move of Islamic State fighters from Iraq into Jordan has never been a huge concern for the Amman government. But the country’s economic woes are a top worry, and another U.S. defense official said that the fight for Fallujah is meant in part to help ease the situation by opening up the main artery to Jordan.
Rather than focusing only on security, Jordan sees the fights for Rutba and Fallujah as “more about securing lanes for commerce and the economic benefit of having an unencumbered route” to ship goods into Iraq, the official told Foreign Policy.
“I don’t think there was ever a real concern that ISIS would launch an assault on Jordan” from Iraq’s border, said Schenker, referring to the Islamic State by an alternative name. “It was untenable for Baghdad” to have its only border crossing with a major trade partner closed for over a year.
With American financial aid, Jordan has invested nearly $100 million in a sophisticated border surveillance system developed by U.S. defense giant Raytheon. It includes day and night cameras, ground radars, and a command and control communications system. Due for completion next year, most of the 287-mile Jordan Border Security Project will operate along a 160-mile stretch along the Syrian border, and another 115 miles near Iraq.
Photo Credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images