Is ISIS Winning?

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American military train with Iraqi soldiers during an exercise on approaching and clearing buildings in Baghdad, January 8, 2015. Despite daily airstrikes, an increased tempo of training Iraqi troops and a wobbly coalition of 60 nations trying to combat ISIS, the group has made steady gains in both Iraq and Syria. Jacob Simkin/NurPhoto

It has been nine months since President Barack Obama set forth a policy—“degrade and destroy”—for dealing with the Islamic State (ISIS), the radical group that emerged as the successor to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. In that time, despite daily airstrikes, an increased tempo of training Iraqi troops and a wobbly coalition of 60 nations trying to combat ISIS, the group has made steady gains in both Iraq and Syria: It not only still controls the city of Mosul, on May 17, it routed Iraqi troops in the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi, about 70 miles from Baghdad. In Syria it took the strategic city of Palmyra. It has extended its reach into Libya and conducted its first terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, blowing up a Shiite mosque in the eastern city of Qatif. Far from being degraded, the group Obama once infamously derided as “the jayvee” appears in the eyes of many, to be on the march. If the question is, ‘Is ISIS winning?’ the answer, for now, appears undeniable: Yes.

The Obama administration and the Pentagon have counseled patience. Losing Ramadi was a “setback,” the White House said, and not one worth setting our “hair on fire,” according to spokesman Josh Earnest. Washington says it will ramp up the pace of training Iraqi troops—training, critics note, that’s been going on for years in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion.

But interviews with military and political officials and analysts in Iraq—both Iraqi and foreign—paint a darker picture. The grim fact confronting the administration and its international partners is that the degrade and destroy campaign, as currently constituted, is failing. And there are “really no good options going forward,” as it struggles with how to counter ISIS, says Sajad Jiyad, Iraq analyst and senior researcher at the Al-Bayan Center for Studies and Planning in Baghdad.

Just how desperate the reality on the ground is becoming in Iraq was clear on May 18, the day after Ramadi fell. Anbar province, where Ramadi sits, is the heart of Sunni Islam in Iraq. It was where tribal leaders worked effectively with U.S. forces in 2007 and 2008, during the so-called Anbar Awakening, to rout ISIS’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda. Many who fought then came to feel politically disenfranchised, however, under the deeply sectarian leadership of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite leader. Some of the Sunni tribes in Anbar now support ISIS, and others are deeply divided as to whether to support the current government in Baghdad, led by Haider al-Abadi, who though also Shiite is not necessarily considered as hostile to the country’s Sunnis as his predecessor was. On May 18, the Anbar provincial council voted to accept help from Shiite militias—armed and guided by Tehran. At the end of May, militia and government forces began operations to try to take back Ramadi. “At this stage,’’ says Sheikh Abu Majid al-Zoyan, a tribal leader, “we welcome any force that will come and liberate us from the chokehold of the Islamic State.”

How Did We Get Here?

If ISIS is winning, it is because of a “series of mistakes made by its opponents,” says Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “I describe ISIS as water that seeps into the cracks—the cracks of policy and strategy of the international community.’’

Start in Syria: One of the underrated aspects of ISIS’s allure has been, simply, its wealth. Whether through oil sales or extortion, ISIS is not only able to pay fighters more than a moderate opposition group like the Free Syrian Army (FSA) can, it has set up social welfare services—just as Hamas has long done—that provide a war-weary population with “monetary gains and social services,” says Khatib. For example in Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State, ISIS now provides medical services. The international community’s response, she believes, has been inadequate. It has focused—belatedly—on training and arming the moderate opposition, and it has done little to counter ISIS’s economic strength.

The U.S. is often seen as unresponsive, even by groups it is trying to help. Khatib says FSA officials with whom she recently met had reached out to the U.S. State Department for assistance in setting up courts to adjudicate disputes in areas it controls in the southern part of the country. “They never got a response,” she says. The FSA in the south “has the potential to transform itself into a governing body. It has credibility on the ground. It needs help though, beyond just equip and train.”

Beyond that, military analysts view the very limited campaign of airstrikes against ISIS positions in Syria as “half-baked,” as one former intelligence official in the region put it. And anytime the strikes kill civilians, ISIS propaganda follows—See, it’s a crusade against Muslim lands!—“and their popularity goes up.” The current campaign, he says, “is too limited to have much of an impact. It just isn’t working.”

It’s not working in Iraq, either, analysts say. Abadi may be less sectarian than Maliki, but the lack of trust between Sunnis in Anbar and Baghdad is profound. “It’s a herculean task for Abadi to mend that, and it’s going to take a long time,” says Khatib. The decision to send the Shiite militias to fight in Anbar also was a watershed—and further tarnishes the U.S. strategy in the country. According to Jiyad, the Iraqi analyst, the U.S. had an agreement with Abadi that it would take care of Anbar, where its “surge” had for a time pacified the region. The U.S. sought that agreement because it didn’t want the prime minister to have to rely on Shiite militias with links to Iran to fight ISIS in the predominantly Sunni region.

Washington didn’t want that for two obvious reasons: One, sectarian tension is high enough in the country, and the insertion of the militias increases the risk of an intensifying sectarian civil war. Secondly, it wanted to refute the widespread belief in the region among its traditional Sunni Arab allies—Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States—that in pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Tehran, Washington had effectively thrown its friends over the side. So the U.S. would redouble its efforts to train up Iraqi troops in Anbar and hit ISIS with air power.

That plan is now in tatters. “The fall of Ramadi is a disaster,” says Jiyad. The United States, he says, “failed to airdrop in supplies, they failed to hit [ISIS] hard enough from the air. The American involvement was weak.”

06_05_ISIS_03 A member of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units opens fire against ISIS militants in the area of Sayed Ghareeb, near Dujail, some 70 km north of Baghdad, on May 28, 2015. The grim fact confronting the U.S. administration and its international partners is that its degrade and destroy campaign against ISIS, as currently constituted, is failing. Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty

What Do We Do Now?

According to several Iraqi sources and analysts, Washington compounded the damage of Ramadi’s fall in its immediate aftermath. New Defense Secretary Ashton Carter blamed the defeat on the Iraqi army and said it lacked the will to fight. Those remarks infuriated Iraqi elites. They note that the army had been fighting ISIS in Ramadi for 17 months. “The way this is being portrayed is that this happened all of a sudden. That ISIS attacked and the army ran away. That’s not what happened,” says one Arab diplomat in Baghdad. The army was stretched and tired, says Jiyad. “They figured ‘We could fight to the death and the city will fall anyway.’ So instead, retreat and regroup. They were pragmatic. They made the right decision.”

The fight for Anbar will now only enhance Tehran’s influence—exactly the opposite of what Washington wanted. And Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Republican Guard’s Quds force, was scathing in his review of the U.S. performance against ISIS. “Mr. Obama, you have not done a damn thing in Iraq,’’ he said on May 24, according to Iranian press reports. “You have no will to confront Daesh,” he added, using the Arabic term for ISIS.

In Syria, the Assad regime is going to have to rely on Iranian proxies and cash to stop ISIS’s advances. The idea that Iran is on the march in the region and the U.S. seemed unconcerned about it, was, of course, already widespread (witness the Sunni boycott of Obama’s recently convened summit to discuss the Iran nuclear deal and regional security.) Now Sunni governments are in the uncomfortable position of watching Tehran emerge as the first line of defense against ISIS. Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Iranian proxy, vowed on May 23 that his men would fight “wherever necessary” in Syria to roll back ISIS gains. The Iranians, an intelligence official in the region says, “have been more responsive, more flexible and more effective than anyone else. It’s a simple fact.”

Against this backdrop, the discussion about ISIS in the United States often seems surreal to people in the region. The more hawkish members of the policy community are again talking about putting more boots on the ground. “There is no possibility of actually defeating ISIS without putting a significant number of U.S. troops on the ground and training up especially Syrians who will take the fight to ISIS, but also Sunni tribesmen in Iraq,” says Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who worked on the staff of the national security council under President George W. Bush.

Analysts are divided as to whether a significant number of troops are needed to defeat ISIS, but Doran acknowledges political reality makes that notion a nonstarter. There is virtually no chance Obama will significantly increase the number of U.S. troops, because there is no stomach for that among U.S. voters. Less well-understood is the political reality in Iraq. “The Iraqis would refuse,” says Jiyad.

The U.S. and its partners also now confront this reality: Far from being a ragtag terrorist group, ISIS is proving to be a cunning, dangerous enemy—thanks largely, analysts say, to former Iraqi military officers who served under Saddam Hussein, and then joined the insurgency. They are battle-hardened and tactically adept. One of the things made clear by the fall of Ramadi was ISIS’s extensive use of sleeper cells, who rose up in support as the combat intensified. Military analysts believe there are similar cells in Baghdad, ready to further destabilize security there. Baghdad, because of a large Shiite presence, will probably not fall to ISIS, but there is potential to increase the level of violence.

For Washington, despite the obvious downside of an intensified air campaign—civilian casualties—that is probably the only realistic option. There has been an average of just 15 airstrikes a day in the degrade-and-destroy mission—compared with around 800 during the “shock and awe” campaign that kicked off the 2003 invasion. The 3,000 U.S. troops the U.S. has deployed to Iraq are stuck behind the wire, analysts say. Even Canadian special forces have more room to maneuver than their American counterparts, sources say. The rules of engagement need to be loosened, and U.S. forces need to be more involved in calling in airstrikes, as well as working more closely with Iraqi special operators—who are respected and well trained—to go after key ISIS members in the country.

The overarching problem with that tactic is this: With Shiite militias deployed to confront ISIS in Anbar, a more intense U.S.-led air campaign will again conjure up the notion of the U.S. Air Force effectively turning into an arm of the Iranian military, a prospect senior Pentagon officials hardly relish. At the same time, the U.S. is training Sunni tribal fighters at the al-Asad air base northwest of Ramadi. “It remains to be seen,” says Theodore Bell, an analyst at the Washington based Institute for the Study of War, “how the Iraqi government will integrate the [Sunni and Shia] forces to beneficial effect.”

An intensified air campaign—if it comes—will have regional reverberations. As the day draws near that Iran and the P5 plus one (the U.S. and its international partners) sign a nuclear deal that Sunni governments in the region believe puts Tehran on an internationally approved path to the bomb, the images of ramped up U.S. air strikes in support of Shiite fighters in Iraq will drive Riyadh, Amman & Co. to distraction. A Sunni revolt is already well underway throughout the region: in Syria, in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and in the support for ISIS among a significant portion of Sunnis in Anbar. Does the Sunni-Shia war in the Middle East and North Africa now intensify?

Washington has said it seeks a Sunni-Shia balance of power in the region, and hopes that would be stabilizing. It has tried to reassure Sunni allies with more robust security arrangements. Events on the ground are anything but stabilizing, however, and it’s hard to see how that changes anytime soon.