Issue in Focus
Sep 25 2015
It has been a year since President Obama announced that the United States would engage in a strategy to degrade and defeat ISIS. His policy called for lines of efforts to halt ISIS momentum, build up the capacity of regional governments and militaries, and push back ISIS gains.
The most high profile tactic of U.S. and coalition forces has been airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, operated either independently or in cooperation with Iraqi and Kurdish forces. A total of 51,000 sorties have taken place in the region by coalition forces involving over 6,600 strikes against targets. The impacts that such strikes have had against ISIS are debatable. We have managed to roll back or halt the advances of ISIS in some areas, however, ISIS forces have gained territory in other areas and adapted by operating in urban environments and smaller groups, making them tougher to target. Though it is difficult to estimate ISIS force numbers, evidence does not indicate that coalition attacks have impacted force size in a meaningful way.
Efforts to stabilize Iraq and strengthen the Iraqi military have met with mixed results as well. The coalition and Iraqi forces have prevented ISIS from pushing into Shia territories and have had success in retaking some areas. However, the Iraqi military has lost areas to ISIS in other locations despite the fact they had superior numbers and arms. Though the government in Baghdad is more stable than a year ago, it is dependent upon Shia militia groups who have extremist beliefs of their own and are tied to Iran. There have been reports of Iranian Special Forces working with these groups and of the Iranian Air Force operating in Iraq. It is very doubtful at this point that the Iraqi Security Forces could advance on and hold any Sunni areas currently held by ISIS without signification long-term assistance.
The train and equip program for “moderate” Syrian rebels has largely been a failure. The President set out the initial goal of training 5,000 Syrians during the first year with a $500 million authorization from Congress, but slightly over 100 fighters have graduated from the training; the first group was immediately defeated by the Al-Nusra front in Syria. Numbers of recruits are low because the stringent vetting process insisted on by many members of Congress has weeded out many candidates.
Given the anniversary of the President’s action against ISIS and the recent events affecting the region, it is time to reassess our strategy in Iraq and Syria, starting with a fresh threat assessment and prioritization of national security interests. The primary objective of the United States should be to deny extremist groups like ISIS, Al-Nusra, and the Khorosan group the ability to expand their reach and carry out attacks against American citizens or disrupt the ability of the United States to undertake commerce in the region. Due to the complex nature of this conflict, we have to find a way to achieve these goals without taking on the burden of resolving centuries of ethnic and religious fighting in the Middle East.