One year ago this weekend, President Obama launched airstrikes in Iraq to prevent the insurgent armies of Islamic State from advancing to the gates of Baghdad and conquering the country. Within weeks, American aircraft began bombing Islamic State’s bases in neighboring Syria, too, and Obama declared his war aims: “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant group.A year later, who’s winning the war? The answer depends on whom you ask.
“ISIS is losing,” the Obama administration’s diplomatic point man, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, said at an Aspen Institute conference last month. “We’ve seen, I think, some significant progress.”
“Obviously, ISIS is winning,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent critic of the administration, said in a Senate hearing last month. “Iraqis can’t do it themselves. That’s why they’re losing.”
“I believe they are in a stalemate,” the incoming commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Robert B. Neller, replied. The U.S. air campaign “has stemmed the tide for ISIS, but it is not removing them from Iraq, so it is not succeeding right now,” he said.
On the surface, Neller’s cautious assessment — that the war has settled into at least a temporary stalemate, with Islamic State still holding most of the territory it seized last year — appears closest to the truth.
Both sides have suffered reverses. Islamic State has lost about 10% of the land it held at its peak, including the city of Tikrit in central Iraq and a swath of land taken by Kurdish forces in northern Syria. But Islamic State stunned the Iraqi army in May by seizing the provincial capital of Ramadi, only 60 miles west of Baghdad.
And last week, a U.S. effort to send newly trained Syrian rebels into the fight had an inauspicious start when the fighters were immediately attacked and scattered by an Al Qaeda offshoot.
Officials insist, however, that momentum is shifting subtly against Islamic State. After a year in which signs of progress have been unreliable, they’re reluctant to sound too optimistic in public. But they point to several changes for the better.
U.S. military commanders say the Iraqi army is slowly advancing on Ramadi, whose loss was a major embarrassment for the Baghdad government. The force includes about 500 Sunni Muslim tribal fighters trained by U.S. advisors, a critically important factor in an area whose predominantly Sunni population distrusts the Shiite-dominated army.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s decision to seal its border with Syria should make it more difficult for Islamic State to access supplies and recruits. The Turks have also joined the U.S.-led air war, and agreed to help push Islamic State at least 20 miles back from the border, creating a de facto “safe zone” for Syrian rebels and refugees.
If that scheme works, it would make it more difficult for Islamic State recruits from other countries to reach the battle zone. It would also create an area where “moderate” Syrian rebels, those unaffiliated with either Islamic State or Al Qaeda, could base and train — even, perhaps, set up a provisional government. And, finally, it would make it possible for U.S.-allied groups to coordinate with Iraqi forces and squeeze Islamic State from two sides at once.
In assessing progress, remember, too, that there’s more to this war than meets the eye. One aspect that gets little attention: clandestine raids carried out by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command. In May, American troops landed briefly in eastern Syria and killed an Islamic State leader, Abu Sayyaf, who ran some of the group’s financial operations. This was the only such raid that the White House has acknowledged, but there have been more in both Syria and Iraq, and they are said to be disrupting Islamic State’s leadership.
Whatever progress has occurred has been slow, a product, in part, of restrictions Obama has imposed to ensure that local forces, not Americans, take responsibility for ground combat. In Iraq, for example, the 3,550 American advisors are prohibited from accompanying Iraqi forces into battle zones or acting as forward spotters for airstrikes, a restriction that some other countries in the coalition, including Canada, don’t observe as strictly.
McCain and other Republican critics have long complained that Obama’s “light footprint” policy has made it impossible to win. Some Democrats agree, too: Last week, Michele Flournoy, a former top official in Obama’s Pentagon, co-wrote a report charging that the effort has been “under-resourced” and proposing that advisors be allowed to operate closer to combat.
Obama and his aides have rebuffed those suggestions, and say their strategy is already working. Are they right? The answer should become more clear in the next few months.