ISIS poses bigger threat after nearly a year of coalition bombing

A quick look at a map of Iraq, Syria and Jordan — to take in ISIS's most recent gains — and it's obvious that nearly a year after airstrikes against it began, the group poses a more immediate risk to more people and more important cities in the region than ever.

Islamist group is now a more immediate risk to more people, larger centres than ever

The region that ISIS controls, as of May 25, 2015. (Reuters)

A quick look at a map of Iraq, Syria and Jordan — to take in ISIS's most recent gains — and it's obvious that nearly a year after airstrikes against it started, the group poses a more immediate risk to more people and more important cities in the region than ever.

And yet, from U.S. President Barack Obama, who seems to be reluctantly leading an equally trepidatious coalition of some 60 countries trying to "degrade" ISIS: "No, I don't think we're losing."

Instead, in an interview with the Atlantic magazine, he called the loss last week of Iraq's Ramadi — barely 120 kilometres from Baghdad — "a tactical setback."

From Canada's defence minister, Jason Kenney: "We're not losing to ISIS," along with a more emotive description of Ramadi's loss as "a regrettable setback."

Many others would surely agree that the fall of Ramadi to ISIS is a "setback" that is both tactical and regrettable. But both words surely understate its enormity.

Coupled with ISIS's successful seizure of Palmyra from Syrian forces last week as well, and what that means to the millions who live nearby, these "setbacks" also beg asking: What should this anti-ISIS coalition of so many countries, many of them well-versed in modern warfare, have hoped to achieve a year into its campaign — which is fast approaching?

And just how far back should ISIS have been "pushed back" by now?

Who can fight?

Back to the map. In the past week, ISIS has done more in pursuit of gaining a contiguous "state" than it has since it catapulted over the border from Syria to capture Iraq's Mosul last year.

Not only did it seize two major cities within striking distance of Damascus and Baghdad, but it now controls the only border crossing that it hadn't already between Iraq and Syria.

It is also closer to the Jordanian border than ever, too.

We've been told repeatedly that defeating ISIS would not be simple. Obama asked Congress for authority to fight an air campaign for three years.

Canada started with a six-month commitment and extended that for another year in March, leaving the door open for more. It also extended its strikes to Syria, ISIS's nerve centre.

Iraqi fighters from the Shia popular mobilisation unit take up a position near Tikrit, during a joint anti-ISIS operation with the Iraqi army. More Shia militia, many controlled by Iran, are to join the fighting in the Sunni areas now. (AFP/Getty Images)

And there is no doubt this is a challenging battlefield. It stretches across Syria, in the midst of a complex civil war, and Iraq, still a troubled country, with deeply flawed internal defences, thanks in large part to the disbanding of Saddam Hussein's original army following the U.S. occupation in 2003.

But even given all that, the West's current effort at weakening ISIS, through its thousands of airstrikes, still looks both impotent and aimless, even counter-productive, in light of the ISIS advances last week.

If it isn't impotent and aimless, our leaders have failed to explain why that isn't the case.

In fact, they've done a poor job explaining how they expect to win the fight at all, if, as prominent British and U.S. military experts now acknowledge — and events on the ground confirm — most of the forces they rely on to fight on the ground, with the exception of the Kurdish Peshmerga in the North, aren't capable of doing the job.

These are the same fighting forces Western leaders have insisted are integral to "winning." So, under these terms, is winning even possible then?

More people threatened

Leaders have also failed to explain why airstrikes around Ramadi failed to slow the ISIS advance enough to save the city.

If Canadian aircraft had taken out important targets near Ramadi, as Kenney says, then why is it now in the hands of ISIS?

Or perhaps more importantly, how has this seemingly ineffectual air campaign made the West any more secure? Has it instead, as some argue, just provided ISIS with more opportunities for recruitment?

Displaced civilians from Ramadi, ousted by ISIS, take shelter in a camp outside Amiriyat al-Fallujah, just west of Baghdad. The UN is moving emergency food rations into the area to refugees numbering in the tens of thousands. (Hadi Mizban/Associated Press)

Critics in the region — stung by ill-thought-out Western military interventions in the past — are asking more insistently now how it is that more people there are threatened by ISIS than when the intervention started last August.

Those families fleeing Ramadi — who just a few years ago during the height of Iraq's civil war could have driven down the highway to cross the border to then-safe Syria — have no option but to head in the other direction now, to Baghdad, many on foot, and to where many are unwelcome.

Reports from Palmyra, meanwhile, indicate thousands have fled, and at least 400 executed.

A historic city with a sadly forgotten legacy of inclusion could be wiped off the map. A notorious, widely feared prison that was for decades home to both innocent political prisoners and dangerous offenders has now been pried open.

What defines 'success'?

Desperate times often require desperate measures. In this case that means finding a replacement for the Iraqi forces that sped out of Ramadi with the surprise opening salvo by ISIS suicide bombers.

That explains why Iraq's prime minister called on Shia militia to help in the fight to win Ramadi back.

Given the continuing tension, the idea of Shia militia forces operating in the largely Sunni Anbar province would have been unthinkable even a few months ago.

The idea that Washington — and by extension, Canada — would now agree to work with these paramilitary groups, some of them backed by Iran, was equally unthinkable.

The arrival of these fighters, at the request of some Sunni leaders, does present an opportunity for Iraqis — Sunni and Shia — to work together towards a common goal.

But it also opens the door for their enmity to fester further, encouraged by those on both sides of the religious divide who might see this moment as an opportunity to settle old scores.

So it is a risky tactic. And one that speaks loudly of the ineffectiveness of the coalition's efforts so far, and its faulty and naive calculations of its allies on the ground.

To date, we in the West have been given a regular tally of the airstrikes that coalition aircraft are undertaking, the targets they attack. And we have been told repeatedly that the airstrikes are having "considerable effect" on ISIS's movement.

But what happened last week disproves that. And Canadians probably need to know now, especially as an election looms, if the measure of success isn't in degrading ISIS capabilities and shrinking its territory, as Obama once said it was, then what is it exactly?


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?