October 2015 marks the fourteenth month of formal U.S. military engagement in the struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS). The Obama administration was at first reluctant to engage U.S. military power in this struggle but then became more deliberate in its approach. U.S. involvement in the battlegrounds of Iraq and Syria has been evolving especially over the past year. This evolution has been defined and is in many ways limited by a strategy that emphasizes political change in Iraq and a broad coalition of states taking action against ISIS. 

The constraints of this strategy have been subject to extensive critique.[1] Some of the criticism has merit, but much is without reflection on the complex environment that the United States must navigate. In identifying reasonable criticism of U.S. military participation in the struggle against ISIS, one should start with the basic framework of the U.S. strategy to discredit, delegitimize, and ultimately defeat the ISIS brand and then take stock of the outcomes to date. 

U.S. strategy has first considered ISIS’s evolving role in the wider constellation of Salafi jihadi global terror, especially terror perpetrated against the U.S. homeland and critical overseas assets. Second, U.S. strategy has balanced an array of conflicting aims of regional allied governments and global partners, some of which have tolerated ISIS as a leader of the Sunni struggle against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and others that would have the United States topple Assad and become responsible for stability and governance in the aftermath. Third, U.S. strategy has accepted that Iraq in 2014-2015 is not the same as Iraq in 2007-2008 politically, socially, or militarily. Washington has reluctantly acknowledged that the conditions for the rise of ISIS leadership during 2011-2014 devolved from the sectarian nature of the Nuri al-Maliki government in Baghdad. As a result, U.S. policy against ISIS has been premised on the notion that any long-term success must come by way of real political and economic reforms in Baghdad that credibly enfranchise alienated Sunni tribes now supporting ISIS in western Iraq.  

In an attempt to act on these strategies, the administration has built an anti-ISIS coalition working along five lines of effort: (1) deny ISIS safe haven and provide security assistance to those fighting it; (2) disrupt the flow of foreign fighters joining ISIS; (3) disrupt ISIS’s access to financial resources; (4) provide humanitarian relief and stabilization support to ISIS victims; and (5) counter ISIS’s messaging and defeat it as an attractive, viable idea.[2] These lines of coalition activity coalesce around a U.S. strategy consisting of four elements.

The first element is the historic national security premise that the president’s main obligation is to defend the U.S. homeland and its interests overseas against known or suspected major terrorist attacks. Here, ISIS is a concern, but far from the major one. For all of the attention ISIS has garnered, U.S. military and intelligence activity suggests that Washington views it as a serious regional menace but not a group capable of carrying out large-scale international terrorism. As such, U.S. airstrikes into Syria during late 2014 and early 2015 were at least as heavily focused on the al-Qa‘ida-affiliated Khorasan Group, an organization known for its sophisticated bomb-making.[3] As of late 2015, the so-called caliphate poses no such comparable global terrorism threat.

The second element is the anti-ISIS coalition of regional and global partners. The administration’s assessment is that if it were to act alone, it would find itself quickly adrift in a complex social, political, ethnic, and religious struggle pitting Iranian Shi‘i groups and agents against Arab Sunni ones. Thus Washington worked hard to form a coalition of states that­­––despite competing ultimate aims––has come together to confront ISIS. As of late November 2014, the coalition included 62 member countries, with the United States carrying the bulk of the military burden.[4] Additional states have since joined, including Sweden in April 2015, pushing the number of member countries to a reported 64.[5] Although not a member, Iran has made substantial contributions of material and manpower, reportedly including two brigades of volunteer Revolutionary Guards units and a large number of Guards officers. Russia, unwilling to join the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, began pushing a limited number of its own military forces into Syria in August and September 2015, offering to lead its own military coalition to strike at ISIS if Syria’s Assad were to agree.[6] Though often maligned, the administration’s construction of its now year-old coalition has meant that ISIS has been confronted with a set of encircling adversaries in a much shorter period than has been previously witnessed against a militant jihadi organization.

Indeed, coalition activities have taken a physical toll on ISIS. Despite some limited gains in parts of Iraq and Syria in early 2015, most notably Ramadi, independent assessments confirm that ISIS lost almost 10 percent of its territory in the first six months of 2015.[7] Beginning in late 2014, ISIS was pushed out of the Syrian town of Kobani by Kurdish fighters and U.S. airpower; run out of the Iraqi Sunni stronghold of Tikrit by a combination of Iraqi army units, Shi‘i militias, and Iranian military units and senior generals; and put under the gun by rival Salafi units within Syria. Compared to its peak in the early fall of 2014, ISIS-held territory has shrunk by at least 25 percent.[8] As Dan Byman and Jennifer Williams wrote in February 2015:

The Islamic State’s fate is tied to Iraq and Syria, and reversals on the battlefield—more likely now that the United States and its allies are more engaged—could erode its appeal. Like its predecessor organization in Iraq, the Islamic State may also find that its brutality repels more than it attracts, diminishing its luster among potential supporters and making it vulnerable when the people suddenly turn against it.[9]

Clearly, the U.S.-led coalition has to date not eliminated ISIS or curbed its brutality or its mass media presence. However, coordinated military activities across Iraq and Syria have put ISIS under scrutiny, challenging the narrative that the group is on an unstoppable path to consolidating a pan-Muslim caliphate by 2020. The growing scrutiny contributes to the de-glamorization of a narrative of invincibility that is critical for ISIS’s credibility among its faithful and with those it must attract. In this context, its most enthusiastic supporters are impatient, demanding that ISIS can only legitimize itself by holding and growing territory—and these supporters threaten to turn against the group should it fail to meet ambitious territorial growth timelines.[10]  

The third element is the determination of the United States not to defeat ISIS for the Iraqi government but to contribute militarily, politically, and economically to the group’s ultimate defeat with a more inclusive Iraqi government in Baghdad and a more representative and committed Iraqi military force. In support of this objective, U.S. military power has been used as a complement to a broad U.S. politico-military policy in Iraq. A key feature of this policy has been to work with and through Baghdad and the new government of Haider al-Abadi, resisting calls to directly partner with sub-state military units like the Kurdish Peshmerga or a fledging Sunni-dominated Iraqi national guard.[11]

U.S. air power has been liberally engaged in airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, conducting over 2,600 attacks against infrastructure, economic targets, and leadership as of July 2, 2015.[12] These strikes have reportedly killed or gravely injured many key ISIS leaders and facilitators, disrupting cohesion in the leadership. They have also broken up ISIS’s attempts to bring together large numbers of forces and equipment, constraining the group’s ability to use mass firepower against Iraqi security forces. Moreover, the airstrikes have constrained ISIS’s commercial activities such as oil smuggling and black market commerce.

U.S. ground forces, limited to less than 3,600 as of mid-2015,[13] have focused on a program of forming, training, equipping, and mentoring demoralized Iraqi security force units to allow them to take the lead in pushing ISIS back from territories gained across Iraq in 2014-2015. This program, begun in earnest in January 2015, focused on training 12 brigades of 3,000 men each––three Kurdish brigades and nine general Iraqi security force brigades. Critically, it has aimed to add numerous new Sunni recruits into the general security force brigades, better balancing what had become a heavily Shi‘i force under Maliki.

Stated objectives were that U.S. forces would train 5,000 new soldiers every six weeks, with a total of 30,000 by the end of 2015. This program has fallen short of its aims. Recruitment of Sunni soldiers has lagged, and reported numbers of those trained in the first three courses of 2015 averaged barely 3,000 per course––only 60 percent of the desired number. The new general security force brigades’ field performance against ISIS has barely been tested, and the Iraqi government has been reluctant to engage them in direct action against the group. Obama authorized a 12 percent increase in U.S. troops for this training program in June 2015 and also authorized positioning them further into Sunni heartland areas for training and advising.[14] Their impact remains to be determined, as does the effectiveness of the entire program in generating Iraqi brigades capable of taking a primary role in combating ISIS in 2016. 

The final element, in a manner consistent with administration policies since late 2011, is that while the United States’ aim is to end Assad’s brutal regime, U.S. military power will not “win” the Arab Sunni war for Assad’s foes. Between late summer 2014 and early July 2015, the United States and its coalition partners engaged in over 1,600 airstrikes against ISIS formations, infrastructure, and leadership targets in Syria.[15] Despite prodding by Turkey and several Gulf Arab states, these American airstrikes have not simultaneously struck at Syrian regime targets, eschewing a direct role in trying to force Assad’s capitulation .[16] Instead, limited and focused coalition airstrikes have disrupted and disabled much of ISIS’s one-time safe haven in Syria, with notable successes in support of Kurdish militias defending Kobani on the Turkish border and with multiple reports of successful strikes against ISIS leaders in its most comfortable Syrian locations like Raqqa and Idlib. The persistent strikes have notably degraded ISIS’s freedom of movement in Syria.[17]

Then, after three years of avoiding direct engagement with militia outfits in Syria­­––those fighting the Assad regime and those with enmity toward ISIS­­––the administration proposed and Congress authorized a $721 million program to vet, arm, and in other ways assist a “moderate” opposition of Sunni militia groups with the first aim of combating ISIS in and across Syria.[18] This program has been slow to start and had a July 2015 setback when vetted unit leaders were mauled by a Nusra Front group reportedly tipped off by informants in Turkey.[19] At the same time, the United States remains wary of, but generally has been turning a blind eye to, other Sunni Islamist groups in Syria that have been attacked by ISIS in the past and are now fighting back with growing support from Gulf Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. There are reports that some of these groups are having battlefield effects against ISIS in some of its most coveted Syrian territories.[20] To the extent that ISIS will face a credible challenge in Syria anytime soon, it seems most likely to be from these regional Islamist groups rather than the slow-forming and trouble-plagued moderate, U.S.-sponsored groups.

This more detailed look at the four elements of U.S. strategy against ISIS suggests that the U.S. military approach––as part of wider, overarching strategy––is having mixed results. There are short-term successes, but mid-term and long-term question marks.

U.S. programs to vet, train, and arm credible Iraqi security forces and a survivable Syrian militia force to take the lead against ISIS in fights on the ground are not yet producing results.   However, it seems unfair and even unwise to judge these programs as failures in 2015 when they are realistically aimed to have initial impacts in 2016 and beyond.  Yet it is fair to state that at present, critics of U.S. military operations in these areas of the anti-ISIS fight make a credible case.

At the same time, it seems most fair to conclude that U.S. strategy to counter the lure of ISIS is working in its main areas of short-term aim: to prevent further ISIS expansion, to put ISIS leadership under duress and constant mortal risk, and to enlist a broad-based anti-ISIS coalition to surround the so-called caliphate. These accomplishments demonstrate that the ISIS narrative of invincibility lacks credibility. At the present time, it is precisely this outcome that most corrodes the lure of ISIS and risks it losing the support and cache it requires in the battle space of Syria and Iraq and across the Muslim world. Put somewhat differently by outgoing U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, a principal overseer of the U.S. military approach to blunting the allure of ISIS,

[ISIS] could be defeated on the battlefield by an introduction of NATO forces or U.S. forces. But unless the root causes of its ideology are addressed, the problem of extremism will resurface…This is one where we have to ensure that we've achieved both tactical success and strategic success…The effort will be long term and requires a dedicated, transregional approach at a sustainable level of effort…We've been effective in slowing and in fact in preventing them regaining any momentum.[21]

For now, at least, it seems prudent to conclude that the U.S. and wider coalition military role in discrediting the claims of ISIS is working and that the attacks on ISIS leadership and sanctuary has disrupted its once-rapacious growth. Only time will tell if capable on-the-ground local forces will be able to capitalize on this disruption in order to defeat and dismantle the ideological brand of ISIS and its territorial entity known as the caliphate.

Thomas F. (Tom) Lynch III is a distinguished research fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The opinions expressed here represent his own views and are not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.

[1] For example, see Doyle McManus, “Obama Has a Strategy for Fighting ISIS—One that Isn’t Working,” The Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0524-mcmanus-isis-strategy-20150524-column.html; Paul D. Shinkman, “Obama’s Plan to Defeat ISIS Cannot Succeed, Experts Say,” U.S. News and World Report, June 19, 2015, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2015/06/19/obamas-plan-to-defeat-isis-cannot-succeed-experts-say.

[2] The five lines of effort in U.S. anti-ISIS strategy are derived from John Allen, Remarks by the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C., July 14, 2015 http://www.state.gov/s/seci/244982.htm; and from Brett McGurk, “Deputy Special Representative for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL,” interview with Charlie Rose of PBS, July 28, 2015, http://www.state.gov/s/seci/245424.htm.

[3] Jeryl Bier, “Coalition Bombs Khorasan Group in Syria ‘Plotting External Attacks Against’ US, Allies,” The Weekly Standard, March 10, 2014, http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/coalition-bombs-khorasan-group-syria-plotting-external-attacks-against-us-allies_881847.html; Lizzie Dearden, “Syria Air Strikes: US Targeted Khorasan Terrorist Group to Stop ‘Imminent Attack,’” The Independent, September 23, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-air-strikes-us-targeted-khorasan-terrorist-group-to-stop-imminent-attack-9750060.html; “U.S. bombs al-Qaeda Group for Third Time in Syria,” Agence France Presse, November 14, 2014, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2014/11/14/U-S-bombs-Al-Qaeda-offshoot-Khorasan-for-third-time.html.

[4] Justine Drennan, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition against the Islamic State,” Foreign Policy, November 12, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/11/12/who-has-contributed-what-in-the-coalition-against-the-islamic-state/.

[5] “Sweden to Join US-led Coalition against Islamic State,” Agence France Press, April 9, 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/sweden-join-us-led-coalition-against-islamic-state-113012973.html.

[6] Alexey Timofeychev, “Russia Unveils Plan for Anti-ISIS Coalition at Doha Meeting,” Russia Beyond the Headlines, August 4, 2015, http://rbth.com/international/2015/08/04/russia_unveils_plan_for_anti-isis_coalition_at_doha_meeting_48261.html; Michael R. Gordon, “Russia Surprises U.S. With Accord on Battling ISIS,” New York Times, September 27, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/28/world/middleeast/iraq-agrees-to-share-intelligence-on-isis-with-russia-syria-and-iran.html?_r=0.

[7] Columb Strack, “Islamic State Territory Shrinks by 9.4% in First Six Months of 2015,” IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review, July 27, 2015, http://www.janes.com/article/53239/islamic-state-territory-shrinks-by-9-4-in-first-six-months-of-2015#.VbeipB_weRs.twitter.  Also see U.S. Department of Defense, “Iraq and Syria: ISIL’s Reduced Operating Areas as of April 2015,” August 14, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/News/Special-Reports/0814_Inherent-Resolve

[8] “The War against the Islamic State: The Caliphate Cracks,” The Economist, March 21, 2015,  http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21646750-though-islamic-state-still-spreading-terror-its-weaknesses-are-becoming-apparent

[9] Daniel Byman and Jennifer Williams, “ISIS vs. Al Qaeda: Jihadism’s Global Civil War,” The National Interest, February 24, 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/isis-vs-al-qaeda-jihadism%E2%80%99s-global-civil-war-12304.

[10] Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/.

[11] Tim Arango, “Proposal to Arm Sunnis Adds to Iraqi Suspicions of the U.S.,” New York Times, April 30, 2015,  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/01/world/middleeast/proposal-to-arm-sunnis-adds-to-iraqi-suspicions-of-the-us.html?_r=0.

[12] “Battle for Iraq and Syria in Maps,” BBC News, July 10, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27838034.

[13] U.S. military force numbers determined at Matt Spetalnick and Roberta Rampton, “Obama Orders More Troops to Iraq to Guide Fightback against Islamic State,” Reuters, June 10, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/10/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-usa-idUSKBN0OP1YD20150610

[14] Spetalnick and Rampton, “Obama Orders More Troops to Iraq to Guide Fightback against Islamic State” and Brett McGurk, “Deputy Special Representative for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL,” interview with Charlie Rose of PBS, July 28, 2015, http://www.state.gov/s/seci/245424.htm.

[15] “Battle for Iraq and Syria in Maps,” BBC News.

[16] Josh Lederman, “Turkey Allows US to use key air base to strike Islamic State,” Associated Press, July 24, 2015,  http://bigstory.ap.org/article/6d942d8879f3492cae5bea4b1c0e37a7/ap-sources-turkey-allows-us-use-key-base-strike.

[17] “Coalition Airstrikes Degrade ISIL Freedom of Movement in Syria,” Press Release #20150704 – Combined Joint Task Force, Operation Inherent Resolve,” U.S. Department of Defense, July 4, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/2014/0814_iraq/docs/20150704-Media_Release-Coalition_Airstrikes_degrade_ISIL_freedom_of_movement_in_Syria.pdf?SpeechID=1949.

[18] “Congress Approving $721 Million for Syrian Rebels,” Roll Call, December 12, 2014, http://www.rollcall.com/news/congress_approving_721_million_for_syrian_rebels-238703-1.html

[19] Anne Barnard and Eric Schmitt, “Rivals of ISIS Attack U.S.-Backed Syrian Rebel Group,” New York Times, July 31, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/01/world/middleeast/nusra-front-attacks-us-backed-syrian-rebel-group.html; Mitchell Prothero, “Syrian Rebels: Turkey Tipped al Qaida Groups to U.S. Trained Fighters,” McClatchy News Service, August 24, 2015, http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/article32176596.html.

[20] Abdallah Suleiman Ali, “Jabhat al-Nusra Competes with Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib,” Al-Monitor, July 10, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2015/07/syria-idlib-battle-nusra-front-isis-ahrar-sham-power-control.html#.

[21] Lisa Ferdinando, “Dempsey: Future of ISIL Increasingly Dim,” DoD Defense News Media Activity, September 9, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/News-Article-View/Article/616656/dempsey-future-of-isil-increasingly-dim.


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