As the U.S. fights the Islamic State to a stalemate in Iraq, the terrorist army also is looking elsewhere, gaining ground in Syria and attracting more followers across the Middle East, analysts and officials say.
Moreover, a report by Congress’ research arm says the Obama administration has had little success in persuading Iraqi Sunnis to help their Shiite-dominated government and take up arms against the mostly Sunni Islamic State. The Congressional Research Service Report also said allied airstrikes against the Islamic State in eastern Syria are likely helping President Bashar Assad stay in power despite Washington wanting him ousted.
On the one-year anniversary of its initial thrust into western Iraq, the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, has claimed the creation of new cells in Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It also has boasted of new alliances, such as with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is determined to attack inside America.
The Islamic State, led by Iraqi cleric Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has the long-term goals of seizing more territory, as it did in Syria and Iraq, and planning attacks against the U.S. homeland.
At the same time, national security analysts say, the Obama administration has no grand strategy to combat, or contain, the Islamic State outside Iraq and Syria.
“ISIS has an expansive vision of itself,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who commanded troops in Iraq. “They’re not satisfied with the Islamic State in Iraq-Syria. They’re reaching out to other areas that might be ripe for further development. And right now it’s gathering fighters and establishing networks. And then the next phase is terrorist activities.”
A U.S. counterterrorism official provided this assessment to The Washington Times of the Islamic State’s regional reach:
“There are a handful of groups worldwide that have either pledged allegiance to ISIL or have had more than a few members do so. However, the affiliate label doesn’t really apply to ISIL’s global supporters because these groups don’t have the same formal institutional relationships that, for example, the al Qaeda franchises have with AQ core.”
The official added: “The allegiances that some terrorists have claimed with ISIL haven’t yet congealed into a concrete set of arrangements. That said, it is likely the factions that are aligning with ISIL do expect some sort of return on their pledges of allegiance — in the form of weapons, training, expertise, funding, etc. And it wouldn’t be surprising if in some cases ISIL was trying to assist.”
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Jan. 27 attack on a hotel in Libya that killed five foreigners, including a Marine Corps veteran working for a security firm. An ISIL press office in Libya claimed responsibility, according to NBC News.
On Thursday, the Islamic militant group Sinai Province, claiming allegiance to the Islamic State, attacked Egyptian troops in Sinai, killing 25.
On Jan. 27, the Senate Committee on Armed Services heard from three retired four-star officers on global threats, focusing on the Islamic State and al Qaeda. None was particularly optimistic, and they did not endorse the Obama administration’s overall counterterrorism strategy.
“We have many potential allies around the world and in the Middle East who will rally to us, but we have not been clear about where we stand in defining or dealing with the growing violent jihadist terrorist threat,” said retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, who led U.S. Central Command.
Little effect against militants
Retired Army Gen. John Keane, who helped devise the 2007 troop surge that defeated the old al Qaeda in Iraq, cited color-coded maps of the Middle East and Africa to show advances by the Islamic State and al Qaeda.
“Is it possible to look at that map in front of you and claim that United States policy and strategy is working? Or that al Qaeda is on the run?” he said. “It is unmistakable that our policies have failed.”
Mr. Keane added: “U.S. policymakers refuse to accurately name the movement as radical Islam. We further choose not to define it nor explain its ideology, and most critical, we have no comprehensive strategy to stop it or defeat it.”
Mr. Obama said during the 2012 presidential campaign that “al Qaeda is on the run.” He has said that al Qaeda-type extremists have nothing to do with Islam the religion.
The Congressional Research Service report delivered to lawmakers last month seems to confirm that the Iraq theater is stalemated.
“Islamic State gains in Anbar [western Iraq] have positioned Islamic State forces to approach Baghdad and to undermine security in the city — as well as the crucial Baghdad International Airport — through mortar barrages and infiltration by suicide and other bombers,” the report said.
Of badly needed Iraqi Sunni help, the report said: “There has been little evidence to date. Many Sunnis continue to distrust the Baghdad government and its reliance on Shiite militias.”
The Pentagon cites achievements in its stated policy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It says airstrikes halted the terrorist army’s advances in Iraq, helped the Kurdish peshmerga troops hold territory and take back the Mosul Dam. The strikes also paved the way for Kurdish fighters to take back most of the Syrian town of Kobani at the border with Turkey.
In Syria, where the Islamic State controls wide stretches of land leading toward the capital, Damascus, analysts make two main points: The terrorist group is gaining more ground than it loses as so-called moderate forces receive little help from the U.S., and U.S.-led airstrikes are helping Mr. Assad stay in power.
The Islamic State in recent months has gobbled up more territory in eastern Deir el-Zour province but has not been able to capture a key military air field. U.S. airstrikes may be keeping the field in Mr. Assad’s control.
“As in Iraq, the IS forces largely retain their key strongholds” in Syria, the Congressional Research Service said.
A daunting counteroffensive
“The Syria policy is a failure,” Mr. Keane said. “ISIS has continued to advance throughout Syria and is gaining ground, taking new territory. You can see that on the other map. And even approaching Damascus and attacking south of Damascus.”
The U.S. soon will start training in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey a force of 5,000 Syrians who will serve as the U.S. coalition’s ground force whose objective is to defeat the Islamic State with the help of air power.
U.S. intelligence estimates the Islamic State, which is drawing hundreds of foreign combatants from Europe and North Africa, has upward of 30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. Last summer, it pegged the force at 10,000.
To date, the allies have conducted about 6,000 airstrikes over Iraq and Syria via manned aircraft and drones. Most targets have been tactical, such as vehicles, boats, fighter positions, command centers and oil rigs.
Reclaiming cities will require gritty, block-by-block fighting, the kind seen in the Iraq War in places such as Fallujah and Baquba.
What remains to be seen is when a reconstituted Iraq Security Force, mentored by more than 3,000 U.S. advisers and trainers, will be able to launch a two-pronged counteroffensive this year — one west along the Euphrates River valley to reclaim Anbar, and the other north along the Tigris River valley to invade Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the Islamic State’s biggest prize.
“Nobody’s under any illusion about the difficulty involved in something like an attempt to retake Mosul from ISIL,” Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, told reporters. “It’s difficult terrain. It’s a big city. And they’re entrenched there.”
The Institute for the Study of War said the Islamic State plans to dig a big trench around Mosul. Gen. Dubik said there is no doubt the Islamic State also is planting homemade bombs outside and inside the city.
When it begins, the counteroffensive will pose high stakes.
Gen. Dubik said that if the Obama strategy — no U.S. ground combat troops, an indigenous force and airstrikes — fails, then “This will be a strong signal to ISIS they have figured out a pattern and a MO that will work in other places.”