The US-led international campaign against ISIS (interim assessment, updated to end of June 2015)

US President Barack Obama announcing the opening of the campaign against ISIS in a speech on September 10, 2014
US President Barack Obama announcing the opening of the campaign against ISIS in a speech on September 10, 2014 (White House website, September 10, 2014)


1.   On September 10, 2014, US President Barack Obama announced the start of an overall campaign against ISIS, intended to degrade the organization and ultimately destroy it. The strategy of this campaign is based on several components: ongoing airstrikes in Syria and Iraq; support for local forces in Syria and Iraq through training, supplying weapons and sending instructors and advisers to Iraq (at present there are around 3,000 American instructors and advisers in Iraq, and this figure may grow by a few hundred); damaging ISIS’s sources of power (especially its sources of income); improving the way in which the US and the international community cope with the flow of foreign fighters from Western countries joining ISIS. All this without deploying significant ground forces of the US Army in Syria or Iraq (no “boots on the ground”).

US Army personnel advising Iraqi Army officers (CENTCOM website, March 7, 2015)
US Army personnel advising Iraqi Army officers (CENTCOM website, March 7, 2015)

2.   In order to realize the campaign against ISIS, the United States, within a relatively short time, formed an international coalition composed of Western countries and Arab countries that are playing an active role in the fighting (even if they only do so on a token basis), alongside countries that support it. Some of the Western allies (especially France and Britain) joined in the American airstrikes in Iraq, while a number of Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Bahrain) joined in the airstrikes in Syria.

3.   The United States and the coalition carried out 4,333 airstrikes, 2,678 of which were in Iraq and 1,655 in Syria (as at the second half of June, 2015). More than 6,000 targets were hit in these attacks. The airstrikes targeted ISIS operatives, weapons, military equipment, bases, positions, and oil refining facilities. According to sources at the Pentagon, the cost of the campaign so far is over USD 2.74 billion, approximately half of which is the cost of the airstrikes (, June 13, 2015).

4.   Senior figures in the United States declared that the airstrikes succeeded in significantly weakening ISIS. However, it can be assessed that the campaign has so far failed to weaken ISIS’s military capabilities and significantly reduce the areas under its control in Syria and Iraq. ISIS has managed to establish its areas of control in eastern Syria, especially the Al-Raqqah province, and western Iraq, especially the Al-Anbar province and the city of Mosul (despite some damage to its military infrastructure and economic facilities). Moreover, on the Syrian arena, ISIS even managed to expand its presence and activity to the regions of Palmyra, Damascus, northern Al-Qalamoun Mountains (along the Syrian-Lebanese border) and southern Syria.

5.   In the areas of the Islamic Caliphate, ISIS has established state governance systems including, inter alia, justice and law enforcement mechanisms, health and education systems, operation of oil and gas fields, operation of power plants, and more. These government systems have not been significantly damaged in the airstrikes carried out against ISIS by the United States and the coalition.

6.   In the ITIC’s assessment, the coalition airstrikes have killed several thousand ISIS operatives. The losses sustained by ISIS so far as a result of the airstrikes, which are “painful” for organization that relies on a relatively small core of operatives (at the beginning of the air campaign its forces numbered 25,000-30,000, and this figure, in the ITIC’s assessment, has not changed significantly).[1] The airstrikes indeed hit ISIS operatives, including several senior figures, but did not eliminate ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the organization’s leadership (in contrast to the success of the US in its targeted killings from the air, which targeted the Al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in Yemen).

7.   In the ITIC’s assessment, the “local forces” operating in Iraq and Syria, on which the US anti-ISIS strategy relies, are unable to take effective action against ISIS and it is doubtful whether they will be able to do so in the near future:

A.  The Iraqi Army’s military competence is poor and its morale is low. From a political perspective, it is perceived by the Sunnis in Iraq as affiliated with the Shiite regime and not as a national Army.  The Americans intend to expand the military aid to the Iraqi Army and to the Sunni tribes, in terms of training and military equipment. However, it is doubtful whether this will make a fundamental change in the Iraqi Army’s inherent deficiencies.

B.  The Shiite militias in Iraq (which formerly fought against the United States) are organized in an umbrella framework by the name of the Popular Mobilization Forces and are supporting the Iraqi Army. However, it is politically difficult for the United States to support and encourage collaboration between these militias and the Iraqi Army (because the Shiite militias are supported and directed by Iran and serve its interests). Moreover, supporting the Shiite militias is liable to alienate the Sunnis, whose support the United States seeks to achieve and hamper their recruitment into the campaign against ISIS.

C.  The so-called moderate rebel organizations(mainly the Free Syrian Army) do not constitute an effective military force leading the campaign against the Assad regime. Prominent among the rebel organizations are the jihadi organizations and their allies, mainly ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, which are fundamentally hostile to the US and the West. From a political standpoint, rebel organizations supported by the West are unable to overthrow the Syrian regime and shape the character of the new regime on the “day after,” and American aid to them may eventually turn out to be pointless and even harmful (weapons intended for the “moderate” organizations” may eventually come into the hands of jihadi organizations).

D.  The Kurdish forces in Syria (YPG) and Iraq (Peshmerga) have proven military capability and high motivation but their fighting is focused on defending the areas populated by the Kurds and, in some cases, expanding the areas controlled by the Kurds, with the aim of promoting their vision of independence. However, in the ITIC’s assessment, they do not have the military capabilities and motivation to carry out vast offensives, which would lead to the overthrow of the Syrian regime or the occupation of vast Sunni territories controlled by ISIS, and they cannot be expected to cooperate effectively with other power centers that are fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

8.   The main lesson from the conduct of the international campaign against ISIS is that without deploying a significant ground force, the US and coalition countries are finding it difficult to undermine ISIS’s grip on western Iraq and eastern Syria. Operating the air force, sending advisors, and using local forces, some of which are not highly skilled, are unreliable and unmotivated, cannot be a real substitute for American military forces operating on the ground. Moreover, the intelligence on which the airstrikes rely has not, up to now, been sufficient to enable them to effectively harm ISIS’s military capabilities and its top command. Sending advisors and other American instructors and supplying military equipment to the Iraqi Army (a course of action that the Americans are relying on)[2] could, in the ITIC’s assessment, improve the military competence of the Iraqi security forces to some extent but cannot solve the fundamental problems that impede their functioning.

9.   In addition to these basic problems, the United States and its allies are facing a set of  challenges and difficulties in the campaign against ISIS:

A.    The artificial separation between ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front:

1)   The strategy of the US and the coalition refrains from defining the overall objective of the campaign as elimination of the global jihad threat in Syria, Iraq and other countries. As a result, the airstrikes focus on ISIS but are not directed against the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. In fact, the Al-Nusra Front enjoys a type of “immunity” from coalition airstrikes (in addition, practically speaking, there is difficulty in attacking the Al-Nusra Front because the organization acts in collaboration with other rebel organizations). On the other hand, Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the Al-Nusra Front’s leader, lately declared that his organization did not use Syria as a basis for launching attacks against the United States or Europe (Al-Jazeera Channel, May 27, 2015).

2)   Ideologically speaking, there are a lot of similarities between ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, including their profound hostility to the West and its values. Moreover, the ITIC believes that at the military level and in terms of internal Syrian political influence, the Al-Nusra Front is a more dangerous organization than ISIS. This is due to its widespread deployment, its pragmatic attitude, and its willingness to cooperate with other rebel organizations.

3)   The achievements of the Al-Nusra Front and its allies (Jaysh al-Fatah) in northwestern (Idlib province) and southern Syria (Daraa province and the Syrian Golan Heights)challenge the Syrian regime and place it in distress, whereas the Syrian regime can “live” with the establishment of ISIS in eastern Syria.

4)   ISIS’s presence and influence in the sensitive region of the Syrian Golan Heights are weak, whereas the Al-Nusra Front’s dominance among the rebel organizations operating in the Syrian Golan Heights poses a potential terrorist threat to Israel, which may deteriorate that sensitive area.

B.    The challenge of ISIS spreading to other countries in the Arab and Muslim world: two of ISIS’s outstanding successes were in Libya and Egypt (the Sinai Peninsula). In Libya, ISIS’s branches take advantage of the prevailing chaos and the disintegration of the state in order to take control of areas in east, west and south of the country. ISIS’s branches in Libya are close to oil fields that they seek to take over. In Egypt, the Egyptian security forces find it difficult to put an end to the terror campaign waged against them by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which is the ISIS branch in the Sinai Peninsula. This campaign resulted in the death and injury of hundreds of members of the Egyptian security forces, and all their attempts to eradicate ISIS’s branch have failed. The establishment of ISIS’s branch in the Sinai Peninsula (along with the presence of ISIS-affiliated networks in the Gaza Strip) poses new terrorist threats to Israel along its southern border. In addition, ISIS has spread to other Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. Its branches there have yet to establish themselves, but a few of them could potentially do so later.

C.   The challenge of coping with foreign fighters: in recent months, there has been an improvement in international cooperation and security measures by the various countries. Nevertheless, the US and coalition countries have failed to curb the flow of foreign fighters making their way to Syria and Iraq, and constituting the majority of ISIS’s fighting force (and about a third of the Al-Nusra Front’s operatives). In this regard, the coalition countries, especially the countries of Western Europe, must improve the security, intelligence and legislative response to the problem of foreign fighters. In addition, Turkey, which most of the foreign fighters pass through on their way to Syria, must overcome the political inhibitions and improve the effectiveness of its security measures against the foreign fighters.

D.   Thebattle against ISIS’s Salafist-jihadi ideology: so far, few steps have been taken, in Europe and in the Arab world. However, the coalition must provide a more fundamental response to the feelings of frustration among Muslim communities in the various countries. They should minimize socioeconomic gaps, which constitute fertile ground for the spread of ISIS’s ideology. The Arab world and the West must encourage the moderate and pragmatic Islamic groups and, at the same time, wage an all-out war against the Salafist-jihadi operatives and networks operating in their territory (for instance, by monitoring mosques and jihadi preachers). Arab countries that support the coalition (Egypt) or that belong to the coalition (Saudi Arabia) can and must play an important role in this regard. In addition, the coalition countries must address the exploitation of Western media and platforms for the dissemination of ISIS’s ideology among Western audiences.

E.    The challenge of the spread of jihadi wave of terror in the Arab world and in the West: The campaign against ISIS and the spread of this organization beyond Iraq and Syria was accompanied with a wave of terror attacks in the Arab world and in the Western countries. In the Arab world, the attacks were directed, among others, against foreign tourists (Tunisia, Egypt) and against the Shiite communities (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen). In Western countries, the attacks were directed mainly against governmental targets, the media and Jewish institutions. This wave of terror is expected to continue and even increase and become more deadly and more sophisticated. Moreover, foreign fighters who returned from Syria and Iraq kept a “low profile” so as not to reveal their presence to the local security authorities. It may be assumed that they are liable to engage in terrorism at some time in the future on a larger scale, either on their own initiative or on instructions from others. The coalition countries must intensify their intelligence and security countermeasures among jihadi networks and operatives in their territory, monitor the return of operatives from Syria and Iraq, maintain continuity in their counterterrorism operations and increase their basic knowledge of ISIS and other jihadi organizations.

10.  US senior officials, who are fully aware of the complexity of the campaign against ISIS and the many difficulties involved, have reiterated that it may last for many years (beyond the Obama administration). Moreover, the United States is having “second thoughts” about the strategy adopted against ISIS and its efficacy. The doubts recently voiced among the US leadership have not yet matured to material changes in the nature of the campaign waged by the United States, but this might happen in the future. The ITIC believes that many changes are still expected in the current format of the campaign against ISIS, which is taking place in an area of regional upheaval in the Middle East. In the future, the US and coalition members will have to redefine the objectives of the campaign and make many changes and adjustments in their strategy, which will attempt to tackle the fundamental problems, challenges and difficulties detailed above.

11. Below, we will examine the seven topics of the interim assessment on the campaign waged by the United States and the coalition against ISIS:

A.  The campaign in Syria

B.  The campaign in Iraq

C.  The economic measures

D.  The spread of ISIS to other countries

E.  The spread of ISIS’s ideology

F.  The flow of foreign fighters

G.ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks in the Arab world and in the West

[1] At the beginning of the campaign, in the ITIC’s assessment, the number of ISIS operatives was around 25,000. In mid-February 2015, US intelligence officials publicly estimated the number of ISIS operatives in Syria and Iraq at around 20,000 to 30,000. This figure is not significantly different from the estimate at the beginning of the campaign. In early June 2015, the US media reported that US Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, speaking at a conference in Paris, had said that the coalition attacks had killed 10,000 ISIS operatives in nine months of the campaign. In the ITIC’s assessment, this figure is highly exaggerated, since it is unreasonable that about half or one third of ISIS’s operators were killed in the airstrikes.
[2] According to a recent report by “American officials,” the government is considering increasing the volume of US personnel in Iraq by 500 new advisers to train the Iraqi forces and improve the military capabilities of the Iraqi Army and Sunni tribes. According to the report, there are now around 3,000 advisers and instructors in Iraq (AFP, June 9, 2015).