3 big assumptions in the anti-ISIS fight have all turned out to be false

Screen Shot 2015 06 11 at 7.55.20 AMYoutube/Vice NewsISIS supporter in Raqqa, Syria August, 2014

The efforts of a US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria have been centered around three big assumptions that haven’t held up very well over the past year, according to a note from The Soufan Group.

It’s been one year since the fall of Mosul in Iraq — which was part of the group’s major rampage of seizing territory across Iraq and Syria — and Iraqi forces still aren’t close to getting it back.

US officials have faced criticism about the Obama administration’s strategy, which is built around certain key assumptions that haven’t panned out.

The Soufan Group notes that the assumptions are:

  1. That the Iraq military would be reformed simply by being re-trained and re-equipped;
  2. That Iraq’s Sunni population would rise up en masse against the Islamic State;
  3. That countering the Islamic State’s social media narrative would be effective.

The Obama administration recently announced an expansion of its strategy to defeat the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh). The US reportedly plans to send 450 more troops into Iraq to train security forces to take back Ramadi in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province. Last month, ISIS militants overran the provincial capital, and they still maintain control of the city.

The operation to retake Mosul, which officials had previously said would be underway this spring, has now been shelved until 2016, according to The New York Times.

“Immediately after the fall of Mosul, the focus was on re-training the Iraqi military, with the ethos of ‘helping them fight their own fight’ — ignoring that almost limitless resources had already been thrown at this issue and that the policy had failed every true test,” The Soufan Group noted.

It’s now apparent that the Iraqi army isn’t an effective fighting force against ISIS, and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is reluctant to arm and train Sunnis out of fear that they might one day turn on Baghdad. And experts say that in order to truly build up and reform Iraq’s army into a force that can take down ISIS, Sunnis need to be a major part of the equation.

Furthering the tensions is the fact that Shia militias backed by Iran, which is trying to extend its influence throughout the Middle East, are vying to lead the ground fight against ISIS in Iraq. These militias have been accused of committing atrocities against Sunni civilians in areas they liberate from ISIS.

Basically, the country’s Sunnis have nowhere to turn and don’t trust the government, while Baghdad has a battered Army and must rely on sectarian Shia militias backed by Iran. And the US is caught in a lose-lose situation.

“If the US circumvents Baghdad to equip and train the Sunnis directly, it will have to abandon or seriously weaken the entire political construct it set up after the fall of Saddam,” The Soufan Group noted. “This is a step too far for the US for many reasons, and so the training has stalled somewhere between Washington and Baghdad. In between the reality and the reluctance, the Islamic State has found sanctuary and room to ‘remain and expand.'”

Iraq Iraq Paramilitary Fighters Shi'ite Islamic State ISIS Flag TikritREUTERS/Alaa Al-MarjaniIraqi security forces and Shi’ite paramilitary fighters hold an Islamist State flag, which they pulled down in Tikrit, March 31, 2015.

Another key part of the plan to defeat ISIS — stemming the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria by countering ISIS propaganda — isn’t working out as well as the US had hoped.

“An internal State Department assessment paints a dismal picture of the efforts by the Obama administration and its foreign allies to combat the Islamic State’s message machine, portraying a fractured coalition that cannot get its own message straight,” The New York Times reports.

Countering the group’s propaganda on the internet, and social media in particular, is crucial to preventing thousands of foreigners from deciding that living in ISIS territory, which the group markets as an Islamic utopia, and fighting for the group’s cause is a good option.

Screen Shot 2015 06 11 at 8.22.33 AMYoutube/Vice NewsA young ISIS supporter in Raqqa, Syria August, 2014

“Interacting with the group’s supporters online, trying to out-snark teenagers or persuade them with reason, governments tried to engage the small but meaningful percentage of people vulnerable to the Islamic State’s contradictory message of hate and inclusion,” The Soufan Group noted.

“These efforts have for the most part failed. The Islamic State retains both its ‘jihadi cool’ persona and its ability to connect the merely curious supporters with the actually serious.

“While governments have sought a one-size-fits-all approach to counter the group’s appeal, the Islamic State has embraced the panoply of individual motivations that spur recruitment.”

ISIS’ media wing is very savvy and their propaganda and recruiting efforts very deliberate. They target different groups of people — some ISIS recruits searching for meaning in their lives might be attracted to the group’s religious message, while others might be wooed by the “five-star jihad” image of weapons and BMWs.

The Soufan Group concluded: “The year since the fall of Mosul has witnessed an increased appreciation of the systemic threat of the Islamic State even if it has not yielded a systemic solution that rests on realistic assumptions. … The challenges for the next year require significant shifts in assumptions and commitments.”

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