ISIS/ISIL is notoriously described as the most dangerous terrorist organization since al-Qaeda.
However, unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS is believed to be far more disjointed and disorganized.
Although they are perceived to be dominating parts of the Middle East, the Pentagon has publicly stated that Iraq has taken back about a quarter of previously ISIS-controlled territory.
The seized area consists of about 5,000-6,500 square miles in northern and central Iraq.
“ISIL is no longer the dominant force in roughly 25 to 30 percent of the populated areas of Iraqi territory where it once had complete freedom of movement,” the Pentagon released in a statement.
It goes without saying that this temporary victory would not have been possible without United States aid, which has come in the form of airstrikes against ISIS.
This statement from the Pentagon comes at a strategic time, as President Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi on Tuesday, April 14th.
Al-Abadi has publicly requested more international assistance in the country’s fight against the militant group. Sources have said that Al-Abadi plans to ask President Obama for Apache attack helicopters as well as fresh stocks of ammunition.
Expectations of this conflict ending in complete triumph must be somewhat underscored, as Iranian-backed militias have played a worryingly dominant role. While a win is always a win, allowing non-state actors to play major roles is unusual and generally regarded as unintelligent.
As a result, a key piece of the U.S. strategy in Iraq has been to reduce the role of the Iranian-backed militias.
However, the Obama administration has run into a roadblock, as they have found little success in leveraging Iraq’s government.
Stephen Biddle, national security analyst and professor at George Washington University, has stated “the Iranians are willing to provide assistance without strings,” and “[They] have some very big carrots at their disposal.”
While the United States would like to keep these militias out of the war, there is no leverage they could offer other than ground troops, a move which few Americans would support.
While relying on foreign-backed militias was likely not Iraq’s ideal plan, they have had little choice, as their conventional armed forces are not yet prepared to take on an ISIS offensive.
United States officials have been sent to help Iraq reconstitute their troops, after an embarrassing collapse during last year’s ISIS offensive.
The Pentagon has publicized the completed training of about 6,000 troops, though they expect 20,000-25,000 will be needed to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
As a result, Iraq’s last and necessary choice is still the militias, as they are armed, equipped and immediately available.
Unsurprisingly, the use of these militias has its own setbacks. The militias are Shiite Muslims and their use in the Anbar providence, a Sunni stronghold, could anger local residents and backfire on the government. As a result, the Iraqi government has had to use their own limited force in that area.
Nevertheless, the militias are still a huge part of the Iraqi strategy, although the United States, apparently providing the bulk of the intelligence, remains the strategic leader.
The United States military points to the recent reclamation of the city of Tikrit as a model for future operations. The offensive was originally led by the Iranian-backed militias, but weeks into the operation, the offensive stalled.
At that point, the United States agreed to provide air support under the condition that the Iranian-backed militias would withdraw. This compromise allowed Iraqi forces to drive ISIS from the city within a few days.
While this seems to be an effective model, the United States is still hoping for the complete withdrawal of the militias.
However, Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Insitition, details his own qualms and skepticism. He states, “we can be so utopian as to wish away militias or hope Iraqi security forces are strong enough.”
For now, it seems that the United States and Iraq will need to compromise and cooperate with Iranian-backed militias in order to defeat ISIS.
While it is clear that ISIS has been steadily losing ground since the summer, it is still far too early to declare the Iraqi government and US-led coalition winning the fight.
“ISIL is being slowly pushed back,” said Army Col. Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
Warren goes on to explain that, “the combination of coalition air power and Iraqi ground forces are having an effect on the enemy’s ability to hold territory and have freedom of movement.”
He added , “it’s still early,” and that, “this is a long fight, so I am not prepared to say that the tide of battle has turned.”
Warren’s skepticism is clearly not misplaced, as ISIS recently laid siege to the key city of Ramadi. This recent offensive shows that ISIS has an extraordinarily dangerous form of resiliency; they are able to lead successful offensives despite their defeat at Tikrit.
ISIS has gained a strong foothold, as only the areas west of Ramadi are still in the hands of government forces.
However, even these positions are under threat, according to Falih Essawi, the deputy head of the Abnar Provincial Council, who stated that security is “collapsing rapidly in the city.” He has begged the Iraqi government for reinforcements, as well as the US-led coalition for air support.
“This is what we warned Baghdad of what’s going to happen,” Essawi told CNN. “Where is Baghdad? Where is al-Abadi?”
However, it can be agreed upon that ISIS is a malicious, resilient group and its control of Iraq would initiate a new catalog of problems for the Middle East, as well as the world.