By most measures, the U.S.-led coalition military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) is on the verge of yielding significant battlefield victories in both Iraq and Syria. The last major ISIS strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa will in all likelihood soon be liberated by a combination of local Iraqi/Syrian/Kurdish forces backed by U.S. airstrikes, limited U.S. combat and Special Forces, and Iranian-backed militias. As the frustrating and inconclusive military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, however, the larger challenge for U.S. policymakers is to develop a comprehensive and integrated political and economic strategy that can translate these operational military victories into sustainable outcomes that restore stability and improve long-term governance in the region. The sheer professionalism of the U.S. military practically guarantees future battlefield victories against terrorist groups but failing to make larger strategic adjustments to the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ will likely condemn the U.S. to perpetual war in the Middle East.
Territorial losses: At its peak in 2014 ISIS controlled a land mass roughly equivalent to Britain and imposed its brutal rule over some 10 million people. The ISIS self-proclaimed ‘caliphate’ today though is on the brink of collapse. ISIS now effectively exercises control over less than 7 percent of Iraqi territory and its territorial holdings in Syria are shrinking rapidly. U.S. and coalition campaigns have isolated ISIS fighters in the two remaining cities (Mosul and Raqqa) that have operated as the last major urban vestiges of ISIS domination in both Iraq and Syria.
In Iraq, a mixture of US and Iraqi military and security forces including Shi’ite militia, Kurdish fighters, and Sunni tribes have liberated the eastern half of Mosul and are poised to control the city’s Great Mosque where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the ISIS caliphate in 2014.
In Syria, a confusing and incoherent mixture of Syrian, American, Russian, Iranian and Turkish forces are supporting a diverse and shifting array of local Arab and Kurdish militias who when not fighting amongst themselves have reduced ISIS-held territories by 30 percent or more. US-backed coalition forces in Syria announced in early June 2017 that the official campaign to recapture the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa has begun.
These territorial losses alone strongly suggest that the so-called ISIS Caliphate is on the strategic defensive at least as far as its ability to operate as a proto-state exercising dominion over a particular geographic area.
Lost leadership: According to a U.S. State Department Fact Sheet dated March 2017, coalition airstrikes have killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and “over 180 senior to mid-level ISIS leaders, including nearly all of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s deputies, his so-called minister of war, information, finance, oil and gas, and his chief of external operations.” While perhaps a thousand or so ISIS fighters remain in Syria and Iraq, these losses deal a severe blow to the ability of the organization to plan, coordinate, and conduct sophisticated operations overseas.
Curtailed revenue: The US anti-ISIS campaign has also enjoyed significant successes in restricting and interdicting the various sources of funding that have sustained this terrorist organization. While once accurately described as the richest terrorist group in history, U.S. and international actions including coalition airstrikes targeting ISIS-controlled oil facilities and cash reserves coupled with a range of global and region counter-terrorist financing operations have made a significant dent in the group’s financial holdings. A detailed analysis of ISIS finances by the accounting firm Ernst & Young suggested that the group’s annual revenue had been cut in two and concluded that it “would soon likely collapse financially.” Additionally, the ever shrinking territory held by ISIS significantly reduces the ability of the group to raise funds through kidnapping, extortion, and taxes. These financial strains have been concretely manifested by the inability of ISIS to pay its workers and fighters.
Interrupted flow of foreign fighters: When ISIS enjoyed battlefield momentum in 2014 and 2015, as many as 2,000 foreign recruits were crossing into Syria on a monthly basis to fight on behalf of the caliphate. Motivated by concern that these fighters could someday return to launch terrorist attacks in their home countries, U.S. and partner nations created intelligence exchanges and coordinated stricter border controls and travel restrictions that dramatically reduce these flows. According to U.S. intelligence sources, by September 2016 this tidal wave of foreign fighters had been reduced to a mere trickle.
Reduced media presence: The ability of ISIS to capitalize on social media to recruit on a global level was remarkable and was certainly a key ingredient in its initial successes. Nonetheless, a combination of government and private sector initiatives has reduced ISIS social presence and damaged its ability to spread its message. Twitter, for instance, has taken the lead in deleting over 125,000 accounts promoting terrorist activities. Meanwhile, coalition military and drone strikes have targeted key ISIS fighters responsible for social media, and there is some evidence that these actions too have limited both the quantity and quality of ISIS propaganda.
Groundhogs Day: All of the above successes are genuinely significant and signal that ISIS is in strategic retreat and will likely lose its claim to have restored the Islamic caliphate. Unfortunately, we have seen this movie before in both Afghanistan and Iraq as U.S. military ‘victories’ against the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida proved ephemeral. More importantly, these military ‘victories’ failed to accomplish meaningful strategic objectives that would provide a firm foundation for stability. As Nadia Schadlow has convincingly argued, in the post 9/11 era the U.S. increasingly finds itself unable to translate operational combat successes into sustainable strategic political victories.
Without a more holistic U.S. counterterrorism strategy that looks beyond near-term military operations, we are likely to see the military victories in Mosul and Raqqa similarly evaporate even as we witness the rise of whatever terrorist successor inevitability emerges from the ashes of ISIS.
So what actions should U.S. policymakers be taking?
Embed counterterrorism within a broader strategy to stabilize the region: The most critical step for the Trump administration is to embed its military-centric counterterrorism strategy within a broader strategy to stabilize the region. The most serious problem now confronting the Arab Middle East is a crisis of domestic political legitimacy. Arab governments (particularly those outside the oil-rich Gulf) have simply failed to address the basic social, political, and economic needs of their people. Many of these countries are witnessing high levels of unemployment, rampant corruption, crushing poverty, and intensifying domestic political repression with the Middle East registering the worst ratings in the world according to Freedom House. It is this overall sense of despair, resentment, humiliation, and frustration that allows violent radical ideologies, promising simple solutions to spread. Of course, these larger issues are not within the capacity of the United States alone to address – and surely won’t be fixed by more aggressive military action. Nonetheless, the United States can take a leadership role in mobilizing a coordinated effort by governments, international and regional bodies, non-governmental organizations, and the private commercial & financial sectors to improve governance and the rule of law, develop educational programs that equip the growing numbers of young adults entering the workforce to compete in a global economy, and fashion open and transparent business environments that facilitate foreign direct investment and create jobs. The growing risk of direct confrontation with Russian, Iranian, and Syrian forces and their proxies makes this task ever more urgent.
Honest dialogue with the public to establish realistic expectations: U.S. policymakers should engage the public in an adult conversation about the actual risks of terrorism and the steps the government is taking to minimize those risks. The threat of terrorism is certainly real, but it is not an existential threat. Despite understandably heightened concerns in the wake of ISIS-inspired attacks in Britain, San Bernardino, and Orlando, the reality is that Americans are more likely to killed by lightning or falling furniture than die in a jihadist terrorist attack. In the wake of any attack, politicians should be a voice of calm and determination seeking to reassure the public that every step possible is being taken to care for the victims, find the perpetrators, and prevent further attacks. Similarly, U.S. policymakers need to understand that terrorism is a strategic problem to be managed rather than solved or eliminated. The reality of human nature suggests that the ‘war on terrorism’ is unlikely to be any more satisfying that the decades-long wars on crime, poverty, or drugs. Real progress can be made in addressing these issues through targeted military actions, improved intelligence, and aggressive law enforcement activities, but history suggests that terrorism will always be with us despite our best efforts.
Go local both at here at home and abroad: As terrorism expert Peter Bergen recently pointed out, all fatal jihadist attacks in the United States since 9/11 have been perpetrated by U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Disrupting terrorist plots overseas will continue to be one critical component of any US counterterrorism strategy. But as the ISIS caliphate collapses, its leadership is calling on potential recruits to “stay put and carry out jihad at home” by conducting attacks using whatever means are available to include guns, knives, and trucks. Preventing these spontaneous attacks from self-radicalized terrorists inside the U.S. will require a coordinated domestic intelligence and law enforcement campaign heavily dependent on the willing cooperation of local Muslim communities who are closest to those most vulnerable to recruitment. Adopting policies that fully integrate Muslims into local communities and American society more broadly is the best insurance against this emerging threat of self-radicalization.
Massive U.S. reconstruction programs in Afghanistan and Iraq were not sustainable, often overwhelmed the ability of fractured national governments to absorb them, and in many cases contributed to corruption. A recent CSIS report drawing lessons from both Iraq and Afghanistan concluded that engaging local communities will be an essential element in creating sustainable stabilization programs that meet the actual needs of the people. This will be especially true in countries experiencing fractured or weak national governments such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen where the US is actively combating terrorist groups.
Conclusion: The U.S. public may not have the patience or willingness to invest in the non-military instruments of power essential to such a change in regional strategy for the Middle East. The alternative, however, may well be the perpetual extension of America’s wars in the Middle East.
Dr. Christopher J. Bolan is a Professor of Middle East Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel who has served on the national security staffs of both Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney. He tweets on national security issues @DrChrisBolan.
The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.