Seizure of Palmyra and Ramadi by ISIS Reveal Gaping Holes in US Jihadi Strategy

Islamic State’s victories in Palmyra and Ramadi have been painful blows for the US-led coalition in both Syria and Iraq respectively, underlining the flaws in a strategy that has been widely criticised as both wrong-headed and half-hearted.

Until the last few weeks the conventional wisdom in Washington, London and Arab capitals was that Isis had been forced on to the back foot, suffering from shortages of cash, weapons and problems of resupply, even if its morale was sustained by a slick propaganda machine that kept attracting recruits.

Now events may be forcing a rethink. The Obama administration is taking “an extremely hard look” at its approach, in the words of an unnamed official who declared in the wake of the fall of Ramadi: “You’d have to be delusional not to take something like this and say ‘what went wrong, how do you fix it and how do we correct course to go from here?’”

Robert Gates, the former US defence secretary, put it even more bluntly: “We don’t really have a strategy at all. We’re basically playing this day by day.” The urgent delivery of new anti-tank missiles for the Iraqi army has been one short-term response. But larger military and political questions are still unanswered.

Iraq remains the priority. Air attacks launched last September have been carried out by the US, Britain and half a dozen other countries, while operations in Syria are limited to the US and the largely symbolic presence of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Coalition aircraft have carried out 2,200 air strikes in Iraq and 1,400 in Syria.

The recapture of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border has been the headline achievement for the air campaign. Last week the US highlighted a special forces raid that killed a Isis financier. Britain made great play of the imposition of EU sanctions on the Syrian purchasing oil from the group on behalf of Bashar al-Assad. Squeezing Isis cash is an important element of the overall strategy, officials say. So is domestic counter-terrorism work.

In recent weeks a significant novelty in the regional mix has been the greater effectiveness of Saudi Arabia, which is now working with its old rivals Qatar and Turkey to build a more potent coalition of non-Isis Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad on the ground, not just from 30,000ft.

By contrast, the US programme to “train and equip” a Syrian force to fight Isis – though not Assad – is moving agonisingly slowly after its launch in Jordan a few weeks ago. Britain backs that effort as well as maintaining financial and political support for the opposition Syrian National Coalition. But the SNC’s unceasing demands for a no-fly zone or a safety zone to protect civilians from the regime’s barrel bombs and chlorine gas are getting nowhere slowly.

On the Iraqi front, analysts say the US has to decide how many more victories by Isis it can sustain before increasing support to the underperforming Baghdad government forces on the ground. It and its allies must also do more to back “acceptable” insurgent groups in Syria, argues Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution.

But Obama’s credibility is extremely low. “Next time you read some grand statement by US officials on [the] campaign against Isis or see a Centcom [US Central Command] map about Isis reversals, just bin it,” commented Emile Hokayem, a respected Middle East expert with the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

The fundamental problem is that Isis is waging war across two countries in a single interconnected crisis that is sustained by Sunni anger and the perception that the US and the west are content to look on as a confident Iran backs Shia groups in Iraq and beyond for its own strategic and sectarian reasons.

In the Middle East the conventional wisdom remains that Islamic State will not be defeated until Assad is. But while there is no doubt that the Syrian president’s position has weakened in recent weeks, his regime’s demise is not in sight.

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