Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports will never be mistaken for a Tom Clancy novel. The editorial style is intended to be subdued and analytical—lest the research staff be accused of cheerleading for one side or the other on any contentious issue.
That said, the June 2015 report, uploaded on the Federation of American Scientists website (the Congressional Research Service does not make its reports available to the public), makes for a pretty compelling indictment of the administration’s strategy for battling ISIS. Indeed, it acknowledges serious questions about whether the White House can deliver “the conditions required for the group’s lasting defeat.”
Since that report was written, conditions on the ground have changed. The administration has found new allies in its efforts to degrade ISIS. This summer, for instance, Turkey began permitting the U.S. to conduct some operations from its soil. The Turkish military began its own attacks on ISIS, and the U.S. and Turkey have even initiated joint operations. Recently, the U.K. started drone strikes in Syria. Meanwhile, France has joined in bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and in flying surveillance over both Iraq and Syria.
Most of this, however, is just more of the same. U.S. air operations have taken out some ISIS leaders and helped Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces take back some territory. But as the Congressional Research Service report acknowledges, air strikes show no signs of breaking ISIS’s grip on Syria or Iraq. Air power advocates argue that the problem is that, even with allies pitching in, the campaigns are anemic. They are calling for a massive increase in the pace and scope of the air campaign.
But even if the air war were greatly ratcheted up, there would still be the issue of having enough troops on the ground to retake liberated territory. That’s a problem. It’s doubtful that indigenous forces in the region—even with more support from the U.S. and the Europeans—are sufficient to get the job done.
Hopes that Iran will contribute more to crushing ISIS have not been realized, either. Tehran’s priority is bolstering Assad’s regime in Syria and cementing its control over the Shia militias in Iraq. Both activities will help create a buffer between ISIS and Iran. Tehran prefers creating a buffer to destroying ISIS, because it leaves Tehran protected while it leaves ISIS able to harry the U.S. and its allies.
When the nuclear deal goes through and Iran starts banking the massive influx of cash that comes with it, look for the Tehran government to devote more resources to strengthening its influence in the region rather than launching a direct attack on ISIS. After all, ISIS is the enemy of Tehran’s enemies. Iran would not want to be too quick to eliminate a thorn in the side of The Great Satan.
ISIS online has also become a growing concern. Recruiting, propagandizing, and inciting terrorist attacks around the world have all been fueled by an aggressive social networking campaign.
Of course, ISIS activities are linked to physical networks on the ground as well. That makes them resilient and persistent.
There is also no question that ISIS is increasingly seen as the leading driver of the global Islamist insurgency. Recently, the leader of al-Qaeda called out ISIS as illegitimate. That’s been widely interpreted as a jealous recognition by al-Qaeda that ISIS’s power and influence within the Islamist movement are growing. Certainly the number of attempted attacks against the U.S., involving or inspired by ISIS, is on the rise. And that increased threat extends to Canada, Europe, North Africa, and South Asia as well.
The latest manifestation of the ISIS problem is the burgeoning flood of refugees streaming into Europe. Concerns that ISIS is using the wave of migrants to infiltrate terrorists into Western Europe are likely overblown. There are more efficient means of terrorist travel. Further, the vast majority of refugees are looking to flee conflicts, not start them. What’s more concerning about the mass exodus is that it is more evidence of spreading instability in the greater Middle East fueled by ISIS and its allies.
Taken together, all these developments make doubtful that the administration will be able to make good on its promise that it will leave office with ISIS ripe for collapse.
Originally published in Forbes.