With each passing month, ISIS appears to seize more and more territory in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, the US hasn't done much to stop it.
The depth of the US's failure to fully assess and respond to the threat crystallized earlier this week, when ISIS took control of the city of Ramadi.
ISIS has overtaken cities before. The group has gained ground in Syria in spite of US airstrikes and made headway in Yemen, where it was in competition with al-Qaeda. But overtaking Ramadi is a particularly meaningful move.
Ramadi is the capital of the Anbar Province, a region where about 1,300 Marines and soldiers lost their lives in 2003. It is also the place of origin for the Anbar Awakening, which helped the US defeat al-Qaeda in 2007 and 2008.
Now, the tribes in Anbar who once aligned themselves with the US face swift retribution from ISIS. And the US doesn't appear prepared to stop it.
“The City Is Not Symbolic”…Except That It Is
Part of the problem is that the US doesn't seem to see the seizure of Ramadi as much of a problem. In the wake of ISIS' takeover, US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey stated,
The city itself is not symbolic in any way. It's not been declared part of the caliphate or central to the future of Iraq, but we want to get it back.
Dempsey's outlook on the takeover is not only dismissive, it's inaccurate. The caliphate consists of any country that ISIS hopes to have under its control. ISIS wants to spread its extremist message throughout the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkan states, as this map shows.
Furthermore, by writing off Ramadi as unimportant to the future of Iraq, Dempsey turns his back on the thousands of tribesmen and women who battled al-Qaeda in this city.
A History of Violence
The US government's approach to Ramadi reflects a poor overall approach to ISIS. The response has not been commensurate with the physical capabilities of the organization.
ISIS is incredibly dangerous. It has illustrated a strong desire to outdo al-Qaeda by broadcasting acts of extreme violence, seizing territory and recruiting young and fervent religious zealots.
The power of ISIS, and the lack of sufficient resistance from the US and its allies, is demonstrated in the handling of ISIS' February push into the Anbar province.
In spite of joint American and Iraqi efforts, one Sunni tribal leader said at the time,
In Anbar, we are losing ground, not gaining.
Even after the February attacks in Anbar, the US has not been able to keep ISIS out of this strategically important region.
The language we are hearing from Iraq today echoes what we heard from tribal leaders in February.
It is pessimistic and concerned. Muhanad Haimour, a spokesman for the Anbar government, said,
We are witnessing a humanitarian crisis.
Robert Baer, a CNN analyst, had similar worries, stating,
Anybody who supported the government will probably be executed.
This happened a month ago in Iraq, and it appears to be happening again, as nearly 25,000 Iraqis flee Ramadi. The cycle continues, which tells us there's something going wrong with our long-term strategy.
Meeting Strength With Weakness
Part of the problem resides in the weakness of the Iraqi military. Iraqi troops have a tendency to flee the scene of conflict, leaving behind valuable American weapons and vehicles that in turn become available for ISIS' taking.
In this particular instance, a Pentagon spokesman estimates about half a dozen tanks were abandoned, some because Iraqi military members had not used them in some time -- rendering them non-functional.
The US has chosen to utilize Iraqi forces in the region based on the idea that this is the only sustainable way to make a long-term difference in Iraq.
The administration has equipped Iraqi troops with training and necessary tools, and provided supporting air attacks to combat ISIS troops. But Obama has stopped short of calling for ground troops and allowed Iraqi military to try to take charge.
Dr. Vaughn Shannon, Associate Professor of Political Science at Wright State University, explains,
[The] US can't or won't commit to a full military engagement against ISIS, so the campaign is not about 'defeating' ISIS so much as generally prohibiting them from achieving any viable state of their own.
This means there are limits to what the administration is prepared to do. One viable alternative could be a containment strategy, which would simply focus on keeping ISIS in one place, through a combination of continued airstrikes and special operations raids.
But it would still rely largely upon a military that does not appear prepared to fight the enemy.
Is ISIS Winning?
One retired Army colonel and former Defense Intelligence Agency officer has said that ISIS is “not losing” against the US, its allies, and the Iraqi military.
This means that something has to change in the battle against ISIS, including what Defense Secretary Robert Gates told MSNBC is the lack of any real kind of strategy in the region.
The other component of the problem may be Iraq's use of Iran-backed Shia militia in a Sunni province. These Shia militia members are probably of no greater help than the quick-to-flee Iraqi military as there is widespread concern they will only worsen tensions with Sunni ISIS fighters.
The possibility of sectarian violence would only add to the number of Ramadi casualties, which as of May 18 was reported at 500.
While the Obama administration has indicated it is open to new ideas for managing the fight against ISIS, there is no clear plan right now.
ISIS may be a tough challenge, but comments minimizing the impact of their invasion and indicating concern about committing to additional military assistance don't reassure us that a formidable foe will be met with a formidable response.
Obama has promised he will “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. He may make do on this promise. But to fulfill this, administration officials will need to acknowledge the importance of Ramadi and commit to a swift and effective response.
Long term, Dr. Shannon says,
Nobody is going to win; it's all about just not losing.
But even if we're simply trying not to lose, it's about time we try a little harder.
Citations: ISIS Gaining Ground in Syria Despite US Strikes (The Daily Beast), ISIS Gaining Ground in Yemen Competing with Al Qaeda (CNN), The ISIS map of the world (The Daily Mail), Myth 3 ISIS is part of Al Qaeda (Vox), Tribal leader Iraqi troops in Anbar could collapse within hours (CNN), ISIS seizes key Iraqi city of Ramadi What happens next (CNN), Humanitarian Crisis Grows as Iraqis Flee ISIS Threat (The New York Times), UN Nearly 25000 Iraqis have fled ISIS controlled Ramadi (Haaretz), Pentagon says Iraqi troops abandoned dozens of tanks and other military vehicle in Ramadi rout (US News and World Report), Fall of Ramadi to ISIS Raises Doubts About US Strategy in Iraq (Time ), Bob Gates US has no Middle East strategy at all (Politico), ISIS in Ramadi Shiite Militiamen Mass to Help Retake City from Sunni Militants (NBC News), The fall of Ramadi exposes Obamas weak ISIS strategy (Business Insider)