NEW YORK - “We have seen successes, but we’ve also seen setbacks,” US President Barack Obama said of his war against the self-styled Islamic State (IS) group during a summit of world leaders in Germany on Monday.
Since the US launched its campaign against IS, which is known by other acronyms, it has described a slow and steady process of US-led airstrikes supporting Kurds, Iraqis and other local ground troops in a united effort to nix the group’s caliphate-building scheme.
Now, the Pentagon says more than 10,000 IS fighters have been killed in nine months of US-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria; the group was previously estimated to have a total of 30-40,000 fighters. The group has lost leaders and suffered setbacks to rival ground troops, notably Kurds.
In recent days, Kurdish militias and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad repulsed a major IS offensive in the northeast Syrian city of Hasaka – a key area that links the IS-held Sunni-majority zones on either side of the Iraq-Syria border.
But that follows last month’s IS gains, with the fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, showcasing the frailty of Iraqi government forces. Similarly, the IS capture of Palmyra from Assad’s forces a few days later marked one of the biggest IS gains in months.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank, the group will most likely mark Ramadan, which begins on 17 June, with “spectacular military offensive actions” akin to its assaults during the holy month in the past three years.
One year ago this week, IS launched its blitzkrieg campaign through northern Iraq that saw the country’s second-biggest city, Mosul, fall on 10 June, as multiple divisions of Iraqi security forces collapsed and ceded ground and US-built military hardware to IS.
The group’s mass-killing of Shia Muslims, the ethnic cleansing of Yezidis and other religious minorities, and the beheading of US journalist James Foley as it carved out a cross-border Islamic caliphate attracted headlines, international opprobrium and the first US airstrikes.
Marking the anniversary of the advance, Middle East Eye spoke to critics of the anti-IS effort and asked whether IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was likely to still be ruling from Raqqa when Obama leaves office at the start of 2017.
Chris Doyle, Director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, an advocacy group:
Despite US claims that IS is in retreat, the capture of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, followed by Palmyra in Syria, shows that IS still has offensive capabilities. It exposes the hollowness of the anti-IS coalition’s approach to the extremists. It is an approach, rather than a strategy, as it is hard to see a reasoned and implementable policy that has a hope of defeating IS. Bombing from on high is no substitute for professional forces on the ground. Moreover, where the coalition is found most wanting is in its inability to ensure IS can no longer recruit. The group is still viewed as a successful provider of security and jobs to its members. The challenge will take years; it is time for those opposed to IS to demonstrate their opponent’s tenacity, determination and long-term thinking.
Jonathan Cristol, Middle East analyst at Bard College in New York:
IS is not going anywhere in the near future. The US-led campaign merely limits its fast and brutal territorial expansion to a more gradual expansion – which falls far short of winning. It is not popular, but IS is not everybody’s top priority. While there is major psychological importance attached to defeating IS in Washington, which wants to minimise the scale of the mess it leaves in the region, a contained IS does not seriously challenge US security interests. Addressing the threat involves selecting the lesser of several bad options. While it has the military capacity to make a difference, the US lacks the political will for anything more than airstrikes. If Washington placed more emphasis on stability, there could be an argument for accommodating Assad in a future government, and of greater cooperation with Iran against IS, particularly in the light of progress between Washington and Tehran on nuclear talks.
Kate Gould, analyst at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a lobby group:
The Iraqi army’s offensive to retake Ramadi is sure to perpetuate the bloody game of Whac-A-Mole against IS. The Iraqi army is widely perceived in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq as just another sectarian militia, so sending in the Iraqi army with militias with an even more blatant sectarian agenda will only further inflame tensions and boost IS recruitment. The battle for Ramadi illustrates why the US, Baghdad and the international community must understand the root causes of Iraq’s vicious civil war. The first step for outsiders to de-escalate the war is to stop sending arms and bombing the country, which has persisted as a US bipartisan tradition for nearly a quarter century. Reducing foreign military intervention and increasing accountability for Iraqi government abuses is essential. Only internal Iraqi political reconciliation can extinguish Iraq’s inferno.
Barak Barfi, Arab affairs analyst at the New America Foundation, a think tank:
One year since IS took Mosul, it continues to expand its tentacles into Iraq and Syria. By colluding with the Assad regime, exploiting Sunni fears of Shia rule in Iraq, running an efficient economy and providing social services, IS ensures social support. The Assad regime colludes with IS, trading hydrocarbons and relinquishing key areas to the group in order to paint itself as a bulwark against IS expansion and demonise rebels as anti-Western jihadists. While Syria rots, Obama dithers. He merely wants to hand over Iraq and Syria to his successor and use the smallest number of US troops necessary to stop Baghdad and Erbil from falling. There will be no elixir against IS or push to reclaim Mosul, merely containment. The one potential ally in this conflict is being ignored. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has proven not only willing to fight IS, but effective in doing so. It succeeds at governance and institution-building; Washington must step up cooperation with the PYD to ensure it can achieve its goals.
Faysal Itani, counterterrorism expert at the Atlantic Council, a think tank:
The current US strategy cannot defeat IS. It is misaligned with the priorities and capabilities of the forces and peoples on the ground that are needed for success. In Iraq, the idea of backing the central government against IS is sound, but its execution is flawed. In Syria, we do not see a coherent strategy, full stop. Washington’s train-and-equip effort to build an indigenous fighting force against IS is divorced from the broader realities of the conflict. The US struggles to attract recruits among Sunni Arabs, who see Assad as an equal if not greater threat than IS. The Pentagon’s slow and restrictive recruitment process makes it difficult to build a force which, even if it reaches a total strength of 15,000 over three years, cannot defeat IS. Overall, looking at both countries, the idea of defeating IS in Iraq, only for it to survive in Syria, is not logical.
Christian Emery, UK-based scholar and author of US Foreign Policy and The Iranian Revolution:
Instead of issuing shrill warnings against Iran’s nefarious influence, regional and international actors who care about Iraq’s security should establish a joint ground force of Iraqi, Kurdish and possibly Turkish troops to contain IS. The US, with allies in NATO and the Gulf, should provide air support, intelligence and transport. IS has lost many fighters in Iraq; once its supply lines are cut, it will struggle to supply troops and its territory should shrink. As victories dry up, fewer recruits will want to join them in a fight to the death. Iraq’s Shias originally turned to Iran because of weaknesses in the Iraqi army, Obama’s unwillingness to commit US ground troops and Arab Gulf support to Sunnis. But there is good reason to believe that Iraqi Shias would not desire a dominant Iranian influence in a more secure Iraq.
Obama faces criticism over his failure to swiftly defeat IS. But while crushing IS is the officially stated goal, the real agenda may be a long, drawn-out war to weaken regional powers. The US has armed both sides in the anti-IS war, which was born out of the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, US administrators imposed a repressive theocratic Shia regime on Iraq. The brutality of its rule inevitably spawned a counter movement, including a sectarian Sunni opposition faction which has morphed into IS. The West supported its creation by funding and arming extremist rebels in Syria to check Shia power in the region. We saw something similar in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. The people of Syria and Iraq will pay the highest price.
James M Dorsey, a Singapore-based scholar and author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer: Several things emerge from the efforts in both Iraq and Yemen to stymie a rebel force. Air power is insufficient to defeat rebels. A decisive victory is unachievable without the commitment of ground troops, which allied forces in both Iraq and Yemen have so far been unwilling to commit. Iraqi forces have engaged but without an underlying political consensus that includes the various constituent elements of the population and is reflected in the armed forces; success is likely to remain elusive. It all shows that a political approach that tackles root causes is likely to be the only way forward; but that would mean accepting the reality that IS is likely to exist for some time yet.
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