FPI Bulletin: Pentagon Reports “Momentum" Against ISIS in Syria and Iraq

April 5, 2016

“The momentum of this campaign is clearly on our side,” says Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. “This is a long fight and I’m confident in telling you we have the momentum,” the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, testified before Congress. Independent observers have reached similar conclusions. Yet fundamental challenges remain in both Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) continues to terrorize Europe while cultivating a new stronghold in Libya. Thus, the United States cannot afford to wait patiently until momentum in Syria and Iraq translates into success – a proposition that is far from certain. Rather, the U.S. should accelerate its global campaign against the Islamic State to ensure that it ends swiftly and in victory.

The Difficulty of Measuring Progress

Secretary Carter and Gen. Dunford pointed to several indicators of progress on the battlefield. Six months ago, said Dunford, ISIS was the one that had momentum, but “Since that time, they not only have less territory, they have less resources, they have less freedom of movement.” Carter said, “we are systemically eliminating ISIL’s cabinet,” pointing to the recent death of the Islamic State’s finance minister. He also pointed to the role of U.S. airstrikes in the destruction of bomb-making equipment, oil-related facilities, and stockpiles of cash.

Sources from inside the Islamic State suggest that the loss of revenue is having a tangible impact. “On account of the exceptional circumstances the Islamic State is facing, it has been decided to reduce the salaries that are paid to all mujahideen by half,” according to a memorandum leaked from Raqqa, the Islamic State capital in Syria. The difficult question to answer is whether morale will falter and operations become unaffordable because of such resource constraints.

In terms of geography, ISIS has clearly lost ground and is facing pressure on four distinct fronts.  In the Sunni heartland of western Iraq, a campaign spearheaded by the country’s elite Counter Terror Service has begun to push ISIS out of numerous cities and towns along the Euphrates River, most notably Ramadi. In northern Iraq, says a Pentagon spokesman, security forces have begun to “set the conditions” for an eventual attack on Mosul, the largest city held by ISIS. In northern Syria, in February and March, U.S.-backed forces reclaimed an additional 1,000 square miles from the Islamic State. Finally, the Assad regime has mounted a rare offensive against ISIS, enabling it to retake the key city of Palmyra in central Syria.

While it is clear that ISIS has been falling back in recent months, it is more difficult to say whether it is useful to keep score in terms of how much territory has been lost. In December, President Obama announced that “ISIL has lost about 40 percent of the populated areas it once controlled in Iraq,” a point he made again shortly after the attack in Brussels. An analysis by IHS Jane’s reported similar conclusions. Yet establishing control is not the same as providing security. Even in Baghdad, which ISIS never controlled, suicide bombings are disturbingly common.

Furthermore, not all square mileage is of equal value. The most important areas under ISIS control are narrow but densely populated strips of land in the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys, inhabited mainly by Sunni Arabs.  Yet the size of these areas pales in comparison to that of the relatively open spaces in the Kurdish regions of northern Syria. Thus losing the Kurdish regions has cost the Islamic State a significant percentage of its holdings, even though they are of less value and more difficult to defend because of Kurdish hostility toward ISIS.

Challenges Ahead

In both Syria and Iraq, sustaining momentum against the Islamic State will depend on partners with considerable shortcomings. In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has a tenuous grip on power. In Syria, the predominantly Kurdish force working with the anti-ISIS coalition may not be welcome in majority Arab regions.

In Iraq, the government may only serve as the willing host of American forces for as long as Abadi remains prime minister. Having lost much of his popular support, Abadi no longer sets the agenda in Baghdad. One week ago, protests led by the former insurgent leader Moqtada al-Sadr forced Prime Minister Abadi to oust his entire cabinet, except for the ministers of defense and the interior. This display weakness may invite challenges to Abadi’s premiership, which should concern the United States, because almost every alternative to Abadi is likely to be more hostile toward Washington and friendlier toward Tehran.

In Syria, the U.S. now relies on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as it primary means of reclaiming land from ISIS. In November, the New York Times reported that the SDF consists of a powerful Kurdish force to which several thousand poorly-organized Arab fighters have been attached at the behest of the United States. In effect, said the Times, the SDF “exists in name only.” Although highly motivated to liberate Kurdish lands from ISIS, the SDF may be less willing to press onward into the Arab-majority regions within the caliphate. And if it were, the inhabitants of those areas may not consider Kurdish forces to be a welcome alternative to ISIS. In either, the campaign against the Islamic State may begin to falter.

Time is of the Essence

In December, not long after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, President Obama sought to allay growing fears of the Islamic State by explaining that “as we squeeze its heart, we’ll make it harder for ISIL to pump its terror and propaganda to the rest of the world.”  The recent attacks in Belgium suggest otherwise. So now the President warns, “As ISIL is squeezed in Syria and Iraq, we can anticipate it lashing out elsewhere, as we’ve seen most recently and tragically in countries from Turkey to Brussels.”

If so, then it is imperative to defeat ISIS as rapidly as possible. Secretary Carter and Gen. Dunford say they have recommended to President Obama that he deploy additional troops to Iraq, although they did not reveal how many. U.S. commanders have proposed moving American advisers closer to the front lines so they can have a greater impact. Military leaders should also press the case for establishing safe zones for Syrian civilians, which could also double as training grounds for U.S.-backed opposition forces.

In the past, President Obama has resisted the deployment of additional troops and resources until confronted by widespread—and frequently bipartisan—criticism of the war effort. Even then, he tends to approve only incremental changes. This time, the President should capitalize on the momentum of anti-ISIS forces by providing them with the means to win.  The sooner he acts, the less risk there will be of another Brussels or another Paris.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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