Just as the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS is making real progress on the ground, political chaos in Iraq is threatening to undermine those hard-fought gains.
Iraq’s ongoing political crisis is reaching another turning point. This week, several ministries are under siege in Baghdad by demonstrators who are trying to break into the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the American embassy and the Iraqi national government. Iraq now has a divided parliament with two speakers; one is supported by Shiite demonstrators, the other backed by Sunnis and Kurds.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are trying to maintain recent momentum. On Monday in Baghdad, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the deployment of 200 additional U.S. Special Forces to Iraq. He also added Apache helicopters and financial support of $400 million to fund the Iraqi Kurds. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Baghdad a week ago that ISIS’s days are numbered.
The U.S. has spent nearly $7 billion of taxpayer money and launched more than 11,000 air raids against ISIS over the past twenty months. ISIS has lost almost every major battle it fought in Iraq and Syria in the last year. The overall effect of these losses on the group’s funding, leadership, arms, propaganda communications and manpower is immense.
We are seeing not only a shift in the dynamic and the momentum of the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS; it is quite possibly the beginning of the end for the group as a state-based actor.
How the Momentum Shifted
Iraq: North of Baghdad, the Iraqi army and Shiite militias retook the strategic city of Baiji in October 2015, where Iraq’s largest oil refinery is located. The October offensive was one of the largest of the war, with enough forces not only to clear the city and its refinery but also to advance further north and maintain security in the area.
The following month, the Kurds launched a major offensive on Sinjar in northwestern Iraq. They reclaimed the city they lost in August 2014, cutting a major supply line between Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and Raqqah, ISIS’s capital in Syria.
The U.S. military advised the Iraqi army to surround ISIS in the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. The maneuver worked and Ramadi was liberated in December 2015. A large area to the north of Ramadi and to the southwest of Baiji was also cleared last month.
The Iraqi army continued its push in Anbar this month and recently liberated the city of Hit.
Syria: Supported by U.S.-led air strikes, the Syrian Kurds launched three major successful offensives on ISIS-held territories. The first liberated the strategic city of al-Hawl and the surrounding areas in northeastern Syria in November 2015.
The second offensive reclaimed the Tishrin Dam and the surrounding areas in northern Syria the following month. The third offensive was a further advancement from al-Hawl to the city of al-Shadadi and its surrounding areas in February 2016. The Kurds captured six cities and towns and more than 650 villages from ISIS. Two dams, four oil fields, two gas stations, six border posts and a military base were taken as well.
Supported by the Russian military, Syrian government forces also achieved multiple victories. The ISIS siege on the government-held Kweires Airbase in northern Syria was lifted in November. The cities of Palmyra and al-Qaryatayn in central Syria were retaken last month. Finally, Syrian rebels with Turkish military support reclaimed part of the Turkish–Syrian border that had been controlled by ISIS.
Overall, ISIS has lost more than a quarter of the lands it controlled a year ago and now rules 3 million fewer people. The recently reported famine in Fallujah indicates the difficulties ISIS is facing now in feeding some of the people it controls.
ISIS fighters have reportedly been fleeing the battlefield in greater numbers. Of course, if they’re caught, they are executed by ISIS. But the myth of the ISIS fighter who fights to the death is less and less true. The anti-ISIS forces used to need several months to break the will of ISIS soldiers in combat. Now they need just a few weeks.
The Change in Military Tactics
Leadership changes within the U.S. military have contributed to the improved performance against ISIS. The new leader of the U.S. Central Command is General Joseph Votel, who previously ran Special Operations Command. General Raymond A. Thomas, who served as commander of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, has taken Votel’s old job.
Votel and Thomas come from the shadowy world of Special Ops, a service responsible for hunting down America’s enemies, from Saddam Hussein to Osama Bin Laden.
The change in leadership accompanies a notable change in military tactics. U.S. air strikes against ISIS have become more focused over the last few months. Air raids have crippled ISIS’s oil operations, with 1,200 oil-related targets destroyed, according to Kerry. Another campaign has targeted ISIS’s banks and finances. Now a third campaign is targeting ISIS’s communication centers. The U.S.-led strikes have led to a sharp decrease in ISIS fighters’ salaries, causing frustration among fighters and decreased recruitment.
According to an IHS Jane’s report, about 25,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since the U.S.-led campaign started. The C.I.A. estimates that ISIS currently has 20,000 to 25,000 soldiers, the lowest force level since the end of 2014. The loss of land, people and oil have led to a drop of its monthly revenues from $80 million to $56 million.
Meanwhile, the campaign to hunt down ISIS leadership continues. Last month, two top ISIS leaders were killed in Syria by U.S. air raids -- Abu Ala al-Afri, the ISIS second in command, and the Georgian-born Abu Omar al-Shishani, ISIS’s top military commander. (Both men were erroneously reported dead previously.)
Even ISIS’s massive propaganda operation has been weakened. Twitter announced on February that it has closed about 125,000 pro-ISIS accounts in the last seven months. A George Washington University study on extremism found that there are about 1000 pro-ISIS accounts that actively tweet in English. ISIS’s videos, which were always available on YouTube, are being vigorously removed.
The Risks Ahead
Despite the great progress made in the last few months, two worrisome developments in Syria and Iraq threaten to reverse all that has been achieved so far. In Iraq, the weak government of Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi is facing resistance on multiple fronts: one organized by the Shiite half of the Iraqi members of parliament who toppled the speaker, Muqtada al-Sadr, and the liberal and leftist activists who have been demonstrating against corruption for several months. If Iraq sinks further into political chaos, the security apparatus will be helpless against ISIS attacks.
In Syria, the ceasefire brokered by the U.S. and Russia is collapsing . If the fragile ceasefire -- which allowed the government and the rebels to focus on fighting ISIS instead of each other -- is completely abandoned, ISIS could retake what it has lost. In fact, this chain of events might have already started in the Turkish–Syrian border area. The Obama administration is said to have a backup plan that involves arming the Syrian rebels heavily if and when the ceasefire collapses.
But all it not lost. If Iraq’s political crisis could be resolved and the Syrian ceasefire continues, and the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS builds on the current momentum against ISIS, we could see an end of the terror group’s control of large parts of Iraq and Syria, including the cities of Mosul, Fallujah and Raqqa, within a year or so.
What would be the fate of ISIS’ world franchises? After losing strategic cities in Iraq and Syria, what could be the impact on its operation in Libya, its chemical weapons arsenal, its European terror cells, its inspired followers in the U.S. and Europe? ISIS has shown that whenever it suffers on conventional battlefronts, it sends suicide attackers throughout the Middle East and Europe to assert its continuing existence and lethality.
ISIS’s efforts to inspire more Americans to commit atrocities like the San Bernardino shooting might escalate. Absent the important strongholds in Syria and Iraq, its Libya operation could become the center of its caliphate. Chemical weapons could become more developed and used more often. Another chapter in ISIS’s story might have just begun.
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