Is It Time to Change the Strategy Against ISIS?

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A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul in this June 23, 2014 file photo.
An ISIS fighter in Mosul, Iraq.Photo: Reuters/Corbis

Despite the White House referring to the fall of Ramadi as merely a “setback” in the coalition campaign to defeat ISIS in Iraq, many analysts and commentators are pointing to the development as proof of how poorly current U.S. strategy is working against the militant group. On the hawkish right, many are calling Obama’s policy toward the conflict an outright failure, while even the more moderate voices in the debate are acknowledging that, at best, ISIS’s surprising offensive means that the conflict will likely continue for many more years to come. New Yorker writer and longtime Iraq watcher Dexter Filkins puts the overall situation in context:

The fall of Ramadi is not just a bleak symbolic defeat for the Iraqi government and its allies, including the United States. During the nearly nine years that American troops fought in Iraq, Anbar Province was one of the most lethal places for American soldiers and Marines; some thirteen hundred died there. In 2008, though, when the Americans finally handed the city back to the Iraqi Army, many of the American Marines present at the ceremony there were not even carrying weapons. After so much bloodshed, Ramadi had become one of the safest cities in the country.

All of that is gone now. Along with the western half of Mosul, which ISIS captured last summer, Ramadi represents the second pillar of the group’s Iraqi domain. To the west, the Islamic State, as the group calls itself, stretches across the Syrian border and up the Euphrates River, all the way to the suburbs of Damascus. Ramadi’s fall underscores just how troubled the American-backed campaign against ISIS is[.]

Up to now, the U.S. strategy for fighting ISIS in Iraq has been to support local forces against the group with training and intelligence, as well as occasional airstrikes, but no U.S. ground troops. Thus the Obama administration’s efforts have been reliant on the competence of the Iraqi military and the cooperation of the government in Baghdad, neither of which seem to be working out very well at this point. Iraq’s Shiite government has not been willing or able to obtain support from the country’s Sunni minority, who were instrumental in beating back ISIS’s progenitor Al Qaeda in Iraq. Plus, Iraqi security forces have more often than not proved to be outmatched by their ISIS counterparts, as Slate’s Joshua Keating explains:

Even more worrying than ISIS’s successful offense [against Ramadi] is how quickly Iraqi security forces abandoned the city. It’s a clear sign that the country’s military is nowhere near ready to take the group on. A lot of the blame for this lies with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who (probably intentionally) allowed sectarianism and corruption to hollow out the Iraqi military from the inside to the point that it was easily routed by a vastly smaller group of ISIS fighters last summer. The U.S. hope has been that under a supposedly more inclusive government and a redoubled U.S. training effort, the Iraqi armed forces could be transformed into something capable of at least securing the country’s borders. But that’s clearly still a long way off.

The only way Iraqi forces have made any progress against ISIS has been through the heavy allied support via airpower from the U.S. and on-the-ground fighting from the Kurdish Peshmega and the country’s Iran-backed Shiite militias. The latter group has now been called on by Iraqi leaders to help retake Ramadi, though, as Keating adds, that assistance is likely to create as many problems as it solves:

Even if [the Shiite militias] are successful, it will likely deepen the country’s sectarian divisions, increase Tehran’s influence over the country, and feed the Sunni resentment that made it so easy for ISIS to infiltrate Iraq in the first place. Many locals likely don’t see the militias as significantly better than ISIS.

And that sentiment is surely warranted, as there have been numerous reported incidents of Shiite militia members targeting Sunni civilians for reprisals over supposed ISIS collaboration. Charles Lister, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, warns that increased sectarian violence of this kind could quickly lead to a “worst nightmare” outcome for the U.S. Elaborating on that dynamic, the Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel and Michael Pregent argue that a “self-defeating circular logic” has taken hold within the Iraqi government with regard to how it tries to enlist support against ISIS:

Baghdad has refused so far to entrust Iraq’s Sunnis with their own defense, preferring to arm the Shia militias and choose where they fight. In turn, Sunni areas like Anbar are vulnerable to attacks like the one on Ramadi, which further threatens Baghdad. With Baghdad under threat, the government is even less willing to siphon resources from the militias, which comprise the capital’s Shia defense force and arm the Sunnis. And from that logic ISIS prospers.

They go on to emphasize that, even after the capture of nearby Ramadi, there is essentially no risk that Baghdad could fall to ISIS, as the security and militia forces protecting the city vastly outnumber ISIS’s fighters, not to mention the extraordinary efforts the U.S. and Iran would surely take to prevent such a siege. But even without directly assaulting the city, a Ramadi-based ISIS presence could further the group’s goals considerably:

[U]sing Ramadi as a staging area, ISIS can put Baghdad under constant threat of attack by targeting its Shia neighborhoods, which are already the site of frequent and deadly car bombs. Those attacks could lead to reprisals against Baghdad’s Sunnis, like the riot that exploded last week, which could trigger a larger and even bloodier civil war, putting the state itself under the threat of collapse.

Despite some U.S. blunders in the anti-ISIS campaign—downplaying the significance of Ramadi is the most salient recent example—American airstrikes have helped blunt ISIS’s momentum. But U.S. airpower isn’t enough to turn the tide in Iraq. Only Iraqi forces can secure the country’s disputed areas, holding them after ISIS has been cleared to prevent re-infiltration and consolidate gains. Iraq’s political dynamics, which underscore the failures to mount an effective resistance to ISIS, can’t be solved by the United States.

Expanding that point about the limitations of current U.S. strategy, Foreign Policy’s Benjamin Runkle insists that “no anti-IS policy will be successful unless the root causes of Sunni discontent and support for IS and other Salafist jihadist groups are addressed” in both Iraq and Syria:

[H]alting Iranian encroachment in Iraq and the Assad regime’s deprivations against its own population must be part of the campaign to defeat IS. Otherwise, Sunni support will simply shift to al Qaeda’s affiliate, thereby increasing the danger to the United States and its allies.

Unfortunately, despite being comprised of officials who bemoaned the inadequacies of post-war planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is not clear that the Obama administration grasps this broader strategic problem. Although the administration’s anti-IS coalition has correctly incorporated non-military lines of effort (i.e., countering IS’s finances and propaganda), this still seems to be a strategy designed to avoid a near-term defeat rather than address the broader causes and long-term strategic consequences involved in defeating IS.

And as the Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer warns, if ISIS is allowed to grow, the consequences could eventually reach Western shores as well:

ISIS strikes back whenever the group takes a hit both to boost the morale of its own fighters and to give the sense it remains undefeated even when it does suffer defeats. “Carry the battle to them. Don’t let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive,” was Harry Truman’s take on how to conduct warfare. And that is exactly how ISIS fights. […]

Meanwhile, with the expansion of affiliates in Libya, Afghanistan, and Libya, and stepped up efforts to inspire terrorist activities, whether by lone wolves or more directed agents of terror, in the United States and Europe ISIS has even more options.

Before Ramadi fell, the central focus of the U.S. and its allies was retaking Mosul, the first major Iraqi city to fall to ISIS last summer. To do that now, they will first have to once again secure Ramadi, possibly by providing military air support to the very Shiite militias they have been working to keep out of the fight. If that doesn’t work, or if ISIS makes further gains, the Obama administration might have no choice but to change their approach.