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Situation Assessment 16 July, 2015

Confronting ISIL: Causes and Consequences of America’s Strategic Failure

Policy Analysis Unit

The Policy Analysis Unit is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Policy Analysis Unit draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Assessment Report, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Introduction                                                                      

The Obama administration’s strategy to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has come under the spotlight once again with the fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s al-Anbar province, to ISIL control on May 17, 2015. Hugely outnumbered and outgunned, a mere several hundred ISIL fighters forced the flight of Iraqi army regulars from Ramadi, who abandoned their American weaponry behind them – a scene recalling all too clearly the fall of Mosul just one year earlier. Washington’s difficulties were compounded by the fall, only a few days later, of the Syrian town of Palmyra, as ISIL expelled the Syrian regime’s forces. These two successes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were achieved despite nearly nine months of air strikes launched against it by the United States and a number of its allies, giving rise to further doubts concerning the extent to which Obama’s strategy of “degrading” and then “destroying” ISIL can be said to be actually working.

Ironically, ISIL’s achievements followed optimistic American and Iraqi assessments that the group had been sent reeling, and was in retreat as a result of coordinated air strikes, at least in Iraq. In the words of Obama last February, ISIL was “on the defensive, and would be defeated,” noting that there were “reports of the collapse of morale in the ranks of ISIL fighters, who seem to be aware of the futility of their cause”. [1] Iraq’s allied government leader Haidar al-Abadi also spoke optimistically when he announced that the March liberation of the city of Tikrit by Iraqi forces (supported by the “popular mobilization militia” (al-Hashd al-Sha’bi) affiliated with Iran) was “most encouraging.”[2] This excessive optimism remained unchecked even days prior to the fall of Ramadi. It is what led US General Thomas Widely, chief of staff of the US Army’s Joint Task force in the war against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, to tell reporters: “We firmly believe that ISIL is on the defensive in all areas of Iraq and Syria; it is trying to preserve its previous gains by carrying out small-scale attacks at local levels and occasionally launching complex larger-scale attacks to feed their propaganda.”[3]

In Washington, debate on the fight against ISIL was limited to three tracks: questioning the effectiveness of air strikes without a substantial US troop presence on the ground, the feasibility of arming Sunni tribes directly and circumventing a central government proven to be unreliable in Baghdad, and finally, the role of the popular al-Hashd al-Sha’bi militia and their Iranian sponsors. The failure of US policy to make headway met, even in the early days, a storm of criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, all demanding the administration overhaul its ISIL strategy. Officials have refused to change course.

To continue reading this Case Analysis as a PDF, please click here, or on the icon at the top right. This Analysis was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on June 1, 2015, please click here.


[1] “Remarks by the President on Request to Congress for Authorization of Force Against ISIL,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, November 2, 2015, https://goo.gl/DlOasc.

[2] Susanne Koelbl, “Interview with Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi: 'The Liberation of Tikrit Is Very Encouraging',” Spiegel, April 3, 2015, http://goo.gl/jWNRzv

[3] “Department of Defense Press Briefing with General Weidley via Teleconference from Southwest Asia,” U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Press Office, May 15, 2015,

http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=5629