ISIS in Iraq and Syria: Bloodied but Unbowed


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At the dawn of the US-led campaign against ISIS in September 2014, President Obama announced the formation of a “broad coalition” whose mission was to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.

Since then, the international coalition has carried out more than 5,000 airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, killing thousands of extremists. While ISIS has lost some territory recently to Kurdish forces along the Syria-Turkey border, the perspective on the ground in Iraq has not improved measurably for anti-ISIS forces. 

In a July 6 appearance at the Pentagon, President Obama acknowledged as much.  "This will not be quick," Obama said. "This is a long-term campaign. (ISIS) is opportunistic and it is nimble."

ISIS, as well as other Islamist groups, do not appear on the brink of destruction, to put it mildly. Instead, ISIS remains in control of a substantial part of Syria, and the terrorist army is showing impressive staying power in Iraq, having recently taken the important cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

This is not to say that ISIS is getting ready to storm the gates of Baghdad. Between the anvil of Iraq’s empowered Shiite militias and the hammer of American air power, the "caliphate" has suffered reverses. The most recent came in March in Tikrit, west of Baghdad, when a long siege carried out mostly by Shiite militias rather than the Iraqi army eventually caused ISIS forces to withdraw from the city.

The latest statistics for "Operation Inherent Resolve" indicate that U.S. air power has  has destroyed 75 tanks, 285 Humvees, 1,689 buildings, 1,166 fighting positions, 151 pieces of oil infrastructure, and 1,977 various other targets.

Yet these figures would be more noteworthy if ISIS was a static terrorist gang rather than a transnational army of terror, capable of reversing its losses on any given day. ISIS has exhibited striking signs of resilience: It has been able to gain fresh recruits through its slick manipulation of Twitter and other free social media platforms; attract allegiance from groups in geographically diverse areas; project power through acts of terror carried out under its banner in Tunisia and Kuwait; and raise vast sums to finance operations.  

If the paltry response of U.S. officials to the continued strength and staying power of ISIS is any indication, the American role in this battle will continue to be kept to a bare minimum. Prior to the fall of Ramadi, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that defending the capital of Anbar Province was of inferior strategic importance to keeping the Beiji oil refinery – a key supply line to Mosul – out of ISIS hands. Today, the ISIS flag flies over Ramadi and a fierce fight continues over control of the Beiji refinery.

ISIS must also be buoyed by what the Pentagon is not saying. Consider: Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, remains under the sway of ISIS. Yet, American military planners no longer pledge, as they did back in February, that the campaign to expel ISIS from Mosul was just around the corner. Given recent events, such reticence is looking ever more prudent.