Killing 10,000 ISIS fighters does not mean victory

Controversy has heated up in Washington over the policy of confronting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Hearings were held last week, with most military and political affairs experts criticizing U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy as unsuccessful and unclear.

All we know about the strategy is that it is a commitment to fight ISIS via a military alliance that mostly launches airstrikes against the organization’s posts in Syria and Iraq, and supports Baghdad on the ground. U.S. officials say they have inflicted many losses on ISIS, but this does not mean it has lost.

More than 10,000 ISIS fighters are estimated to have been killed, and the organization has been pushed back in some areas. However, it is still making gains

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

The hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa said ISIS’s battlefield losses do not indicate its defeat, as the latter is growing and strengthening its positions on the ground. U.S.-led bombings have been ongoing for months, with more than 4,000 airstrikes launched. More than 10,000 ISIS fighters are estimated to have been killed, and the organization has been pushed back in some areas. However, it is still making gains.

An incomplete picture

These numbers do not draw a complete picture of the reality on the ground in Iraq and Syria. In the past few months, ISIS’s performance has developed in terms of managing the areas it occupies and dealing with local powers. It has also become more capable of getting local resources to fund its needs and propaganda.

Most importantly, it has succeeded in recruiting more fighters, especially from among Sunni Iraqi youths, particularly due to the government’s failure to deter terrorist Shiite militias that brag of burning and killing men just because they are Sunni.

Washington’s mistake lies in adopting a mysterious policy. It is supposed to clearly declare its support for everyone fighting ISIS, but Baghdad is using the excuse of sovereignty to prevent the Americans from supporting Anbar tribes, at a time when the Iraqi government does not have any sovereignty on the ground.

The U.S. ambassador was embarrassed after promising Sunni tribes to support them with arms if they cooperate with the American-led alliance against ISIS. When they did so, the ambassador retreated after Shiite parties and the Iraqi prime minister objected.

In the backseat

Washington is sitting in the backseat behind Baghdad, which is losing control and under domestic and Iranian pressures. Everyone expects the United States to lead, not to be led. What was said during the hearing is worth listening to, as national security analyst Anthony Cordesman criticized Washington for cooperating with Iran in Iraq to fight ISIS when Tehran is an opponent that cannot be trusted.

When it comes to Iraq, Iran is not concerned about the spread of ISIS in Sunni areas, because its aim is to tighten its grip on Shiite areas. Therefore, Iran sees ISIS as its ally, or at least not an enemy.

What further complicates the war in Iraq is the region’s preoccupation with several other conflicts. Countries cannot fight on all fronts, and some do not want to aid governments with which they are at odds, despite terrorist groups being a mutual threat.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on June 11, 2015.

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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

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