Just as the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS is making real progress on the ground, political chaos in Iraq is threatening to undermine those hard-fought gains.
Iraq’s ongoing political crisis is reaching another turning point. This week, several ministries are under siege in Baghdad by demonstrators who are trying to break into the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the American embassy and the Iraqi national government. Iraq now has a divided parliament with two speakers; one is supported by Shiite demonstrators, the other backed by Sunnis and Kurds.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials are trying to maintain recent momentum. On Monday in Baghdad, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the deployment of 200 additional U.S. Special Forces to Iraq. He also added Apache helicopters and financial support of $400 million to fund the Iraqi Kurds. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Baghdad a week ago that ISIS’s days are numbered.
The U.S. has spent nearly $7 billion of taxpayer money and launched more than 11,000 air raids against ISIS over the past twenty months. ISIS has lost almost every major battle it fought in Iraq and Syria in the last year. The overall effect of these losses on the group’s funding, leadership, arms, propaganda communications and manpower is immense.
We are seeing not only a shift in the dynamic and the momentum of the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS; it is quite possibly the beginning of the end for the group as a state-based actor.
According to an IHS Jane’s report, about 25,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since the U.S.-led campaign started. The C.I.A. estimates that ISIS currently has 20,000 to 25,000 soldiers, the lowest force level since the end of 2014. The loss of land, people and oil have led to a drop of its monthly revenues from $80 million to $56 million.
Meanwhile, the campaign to hunt down ISIS leadership continues. Last month, two top ISIS leaders were killed in Syria by U.S. air raids -- Abu Ala al-Afri, the ISIS second in command, and the Georgian-born Abu Omar al-Shishani, ISIS’s top military commander. (Both men were erroneously reported dead previously.)
Even ISIS’s massive propaganda operation has been weakened. Twitter announced on February that it has closed about 125,000 pro-ISIS accounts in the last seven months. A George Washington University study on extremism found that there are about 1000 pro-ISIS accounts that actively tweet in English. ISIS’s videos, which were always available on YouTube, are being vigorously removed.
Despite the great progress made in the last few months, two worrisome developments in Syria and Iraq threaten to reverse all that has been achieved so far. In Iraq, the weak government of Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi is facing resistance on multiple fronts: one organized by the Shiite half of the Iraqi members of parliament who toppled the speaker, Muqtada al-Sadr, and the liberal and leftist activists who have been demonstrating against corruption for several months. If Iraq sinks further into political chaos, the security apparatus will be helpless against ISIS attacks.
In Syria, the ceasefire brokered by the U.S. and Russia is collapsing . If the fragile ceasefire -- which allowed the government and the rebels to focus on fighting ISIS instead of each other -- is completely abandoned, ISIS could retake what it has lost. In fact, this chain of events might have already started in the Turkish–Syrian border area. The administration is said to have a backup plan that involves arming the Syrian rebels heavily if and when the ceasefire collapses.