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IS advances in Iraq and Syria has analysts questioning the US led coalition strategy -

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MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Michael O'Hanlon is a security and defence analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington and I spoke to him a short time ago.

Michael O'Hanlon, let's start on Iraq. How serious is the IS victory in Ramadi?

MICHAEL O'HANLON: Well, I'm certainly concerned. I mean, it has to be at best a setback in the timing of our expectations of when better things and happier things can happen in cities like Mosul.

We always knew that most of Anbar province and the surrounding cities of Ramadi were in the wrong hands and under ISIL control and therefore that their strength there was considerable. But you know, the fact that Ramadi - which is the regional capital and along with Fallujah one of its two largest cities - the fact that it would fall completes the sweep, so to speak, more or less. And now almost all of Anbar is under ISIL control.

And, moreover, it shows the Iraqi army wasn't getting very well rebuilt. It suggests that American attentiveness, or the American role in this war wasn't quite adequate to the task. And it's just going to slow everything else down.

So at a best-case level of analysis, it's a significant slowing and obviously a personal tragedy for a lot of friendly Iraqis who are now suffering at the hands of ISIL's rule.

In a worst case, it could even challenge our basic assumptions about which direction this war is headed.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Because this was a force, we had been led to believe only recently, that was on the back foot, suffering from shortages of cash and weapons. And that's clearly not the case?

MICHAEL O'HANLON: That's right. And, you know, I think some people were making that argument more enthusiastically than others. I was always a little dubious that we really had ISIL on the ropes. And moreover I think that whatever progress we make in Iraq - or lack thereof - but even if we do start making progress; if the Iraqi military and government start making progress with our help; the Syria piece of this is still fundamentally unclear and unpromising.

So obviously ISIL was not on the ropes and this just makes that manifestly clear, as does the ISIL takeover of the city of Palmyra over the border in Syria.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And we've seen that in the last couple of days them take Palmyra. Are these two separate military offensives working independently, or is this a coordinated IS strategy? In other words, how sophisticated is their operation?

MICHAEL O'HANLON: Well, I think they could coordinate it if they needed to. But I'm not sure that they really had to roll forces from one place to the other or divvy up assets or take advantage of the distraction of, you know, one set of enemies in one place in order to go after a prize somewhere else.

I think they probably had adequate assets in both places to do these things locally. And that's disturbing.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Now, broadly you argue that the US in on the right rack in Iraq, generally, but not in Syria. Why?

MICHAEL O'HANLON: Well, first of all, even on Iraq, it's important to qualify what I meant by that. We're going to have to see, as you and I have been discussing, some significant improvement in the trajectory that we're on.

And I did have some ideas in my piece, including the creation of an Iraqi national guard, that I think will be needed, because the national guard allows you to recruit and train and deploy forces locally so people can fight for their own home town. It gives you a way to bring the Sunni Arab tribesmen and some of the better-behaved Shiah militias into the national security structure, much more effectively than we've seen so far.

So even in Iraq I think we need to do substantially more - or, to be more to the point, the Iraqi government needs to do substantially more.

We may also need to send a few thousand more Americans on the ground - and if a few Aussies wanted to come along with us, that would be wonderful because it's the sort of stuff that Aussies are good at. It's getting out there with the deployed forces and advising them and calling in air power and maybe even conducting a few special forces raids with them. And that's the kind of thing we may still need to do.

So when I say we're on the right track in Iraq, it's only because we've been gradually ramping up our involvement. I think we have to keep doing that, but I think at least we are seeing that underway.

Whereas in Syria, the whole concept that we've got is just fundamentally unpromising.

I mean, we're trying to train up to a few thousand moderate opposition fighters a year. We can't even find a few thousand that we think are worthy of training. Even if we were to achieve that goal at that pace, it would take three or four years before there would be anywhere near enough of them, even to have reasonable local superiority against certain elements of Assad's army or against ISIL.

And, you know, meanwhile, the outside role is projected to stay just where it is or no more. And so I don't think that even adds up to a theoretically promising strategy, much less one that's going to work in practice. So that's what I mean.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: There are suggestions now that Barack Obama is fine-tuning his policy. How much room does he have to move, particularly given the presidential election cycle is underway and may complicate things, presumably?

MICHAEL O'HANLON: Oh, he's got all the time in the world if he wants to do more. I mean, the presidential election cycle is not going to impede him.

Because, you know, I guess, if you wanted to make the argument that he doesn't want to do anything that hurts Hilary - and she was part of this policy too at one point - I don't think that's going to affect him very much, because the whole country can see that this policy's not working. So you don't help your would-be successor by sustaining a policy that's failing.

So I don't think the presidential race really affects things that much. He's going to be commander-in-chief for a year and a half and that's a long time.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And are you seeing any evidence of him actually really doing some fine-tuning on the policy?

MICHAEL O'HANLON: Well, "fine-tuning" may not even be - if you'll forgive me - may not even be the right word. In Syria he's got to throw away his policy and start fresh.

In Iraq we do see incremental escalation and that's even more than fine-tuning on the Iraq side.

But, you know, a year ago we really didn't want to be involved in Iraq at all. We had virtually no-one there. Since that time we've added a lot of aeroplanes. We've added 3000 American trainers on the ground and so there's no doubt we've been changing.

In the last six months we've probably lost a little bit of our forward motion and so I think we need to get back to that.

But in Syria he's just got to almost start with a blank sheet of paper.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: That's Michael O'Hanlon, the security and defence analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.