Months of US military pressure have washed off the back of the Islamic Caliphate, which seems equally unfazed by the arrival of Russian forces to the Syrian and Iraqi warfronts.
US strikes have been sparse and only two Delta force commando raids have been mounted: the first before dawn on May 16 at a farm adjacent to Deir Ez-Zour southeast of Raqqa in Syria, and the second on Oct. 22 at an ISIS prison in Hawijah, south of Kirkuk in Iraq.
In all these efforts, the Americans recovered documents of intelligence value, but no ISIS unit was attacked, no ISIS defense line shattered and no city captured by the jihadis was threatened – either in Syria or Iraq.
As a result, when US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 27, he said the US would have to initiate “direct ground action against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria” – evidently following an Obama administration reassessment of the strategy for fighting the Islamic State.
The Islamic State has not responded to a potentially changed landscape, any more than its leaders reacted to the arrival of the Russian forces in Syria or Russian air strikes.
ISIS feels it can safely sit its enemies out
ISIS commanders and strategists, most of them former Iraqi generals, were evidently not impressed by the campaign the US and its 65 coalition partners have waged for their defeat; neither have they so far been moved by Russian military operations and the reinforcements Iran brought in for strengthening the various Syrian fronts.
The reason is obvious. ISIS has survived almost a year of combat against Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in Iraq, with none of its defense lines breached, excepting only in the oil refining city of Baiji. The Islamic State has also been able to hold on to most of its conquered territory, including the big Iraqi cities of Ramadi, Falujja and Mosul.
And that is not all. DEBKA Weekly’s military and counterterrorism sources point out that none of the jihadist units have been destroyed or broken up; nor do they see any any real contest ahead with any American, Russian or Iranian quarter. No senior operational commander has, moreover, been liquidated or taken prisoner.
All in all, the terrorist organization feels safe enough to lift the emergency measures it applied to protect its forces from US air strikes, and returned those forces to normal operations.
Two US plans for putting ISIS to flight failed
Washington’s reassessment was therefore overdue, especially after it failed to bring off two plans in recent months for putting the jihadis to flight in western Iraq.
One was the aerial bombardment of ISIS’s eastward military movements from Syria into the Euphrates Valley. They are trying to open up an Syrian-Iraqi corridor as an alternative to the northern Raqqa-Mosul route, which Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish forces occasionally managed to block.
The jihadis ducked the US air strikes by moving under cover of the dense stands of willow trees lining the banks of the river and canals.
The second US plan counted on the deployment of Jordanian special forces to Iraq’s western Anbar province – both for covert action against ISIS bases and transportation routes, and the enlistment of local Sunni tribes to join the war against the terrorist organization.
It was soon evident that the Jordanian strike units were too small for the conduct of guerilla warfare across a vast expanse of 84,000 square miles. Neither did the Jordan’s army possess the logistical infrastructure for running units deep inside Iraq and so far from its border. Then, too, local Sunni tribes were cagey about joining the war against the Islamists, since they did not entirely trust the Jordanian kings’ pledges of funds and weapons.
No Western ideas powerful enough to beat the “caliphate”
All this means that the US and Russia must go back to the drawing board for new strategies, whereas the Islamic State, in contrast, feels contented enough to sit back and count its gains in Syria and Iraq.
US President Barack Obama has said more than once in the past few months, most recently on July 6, that “ideologies are not defeated with guns, they are defeated by better ideas.”
The problem is that neither Washington nor Moscow has made any effort to develop better ideas, while ISIS has. Its ideology holds allure for diverse Muslim populations, especially its central theme of a revived “Muslim caliphate” that will unite all Muslims worldwide under its flag. The West has not come up with any answer to this idea.
In the absence of a new strategy and decisive military action by the US or Russia, it seems unlikely that ISIS will be dislodged and defeated any time soon. The fact that the Islamic State remains in control of huge areas, having resisted every US and Russian military effort to push it out, may well convince the Muslim masses that the new caliphate is not a passing episode but a real political and military fact which may endure for years to come.