In the battle against ISIS, it’s one step forward, two steps back.
Hours after the U.S. touted a special forces operation that took out a high-level operative of the Islamic State — in Syria — the militants struck again. They took advantage of a weak Iraqi force to capture Ramadi, an important provincial capital just down the road from Baghdad.
This was not good news. The Obama administration at first played it down and vowed that Ramadi would be retaken. That most likely will require the help of Shiite militias, some backed by Iran, which would delicately come to the aid of the area’s Sunnis and a shaky Iraqi government. And 1,000 American rockets are quickly being shipped to the Iraqis, too.
The hawks are circling and cackling. They question President Barack Obama’s strategy in the Middle East. But who really wants to see U.S. ground forces going back there in formidable numbers? As Obama and his spokesmen emphasize, the long-term strategy in this vexing conflict involves empowering Iraq and other allies in the region to take responsibility for the fight.
A few weeks ago, I listened to retired Gen. John Allen describe the complications, the challenges and the mission in this phase of American involvement in the Middle East. Allen briefed opinion journalists in a session at the State Department in Washington. He serves as Obama’s envoy to the global coalition countering the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Da’esh, an Arabic term applied to the group, which Allen prefers, partly because the militants supposedly hate it.
It’s safe to say, in Allen’s view, that one day’s Da’esh victory on the battlefield does not foretell a debacle in the making.
In that moment, Allen projected a somewhat optimistic picture of the coalition effort, at least in Iraq.
“Da’esh was on the offensive a few months ago,” he said. “Today Da’esh has been defeated in a number of areas. On any given day there is a tactical contest that’s occurring in any number of areas in Iraq, but by and large the strategic operational and tactical momentum of Da’esh has been halted and rolled back.”
Well, that was then. Clearly Allen and the administration have been recalibrating that assessment in the last week, as one ISIS advancement after another unfolds.
The Islamic State’s capture of the ancient city of Palmyra, on the Syrian side of the border, brought freshly disturbing evidence of the militants’ capabilities, strategies and ruthlessness. Hundreds of civilians were reportedly killed in the assault.
Foreign Policy magazine this week predicted that the Islamic State’s next big victory would be an oil refinery in Baiji, north of Tikrit, and it complained of “Washington’s scattershot policy.”
Nevertheless, according to Allen, what happens on the ground — the “kinetic activities” — is only one aspect of the campaign. The strategy also includes disrupting the influx of foreign fighters as well as the Islamic State’s financial networks; helping to stabilize Iraq and taking care of citizens who have been “liberated” from the militants’ clutches; and, especially, expanding a “countermessaging” operation.
The U.S. and “coalition partners” are trying to make the most of ISIS defectors and others who are testifying that the group’s glorious caliphate is in reality a nightmare. In the propaganda war taking place on Twitter and elsewhere in the cybersphere, the focus is on “deradicalization” and combating the militants’ self-projected image of invincibility.
Those arguments are harder to make when ISIS raises its flag high and makes Iraqi soldiers flee.
Allen contended that “the coalition has made important gains across these lines of effort, particularly in support of our partners in Iraq.”
But this week’s setbacks in Iraq and Syria add to the strain on American patience. Just wait until the Roman ruins of Palmyra provide another Da’esh photo opp.
Yet, from a distance let’s hope it’s probably too soon to conclude that if it quacks like a quagmire, then it could well become one.