During the State of the Union, President Obama made a big claim about the war against ISIS. "In Iraq and Syria," the President said, "American leadership — including our military power — is stopping [ISIS]'s advance."
The phrasing here is careful. Obama isn't claiming that the US has ISIS on the brink of defeat: indeed, the United States has made very little progress towards pushing ISIS out of its core strongholds in Iraq and Syria. Though Obama claims the American goal is "degrading and ultimately defeating [ISIS]," that's not happening anytime soon.
But Obama's more modest claim — that ISIS's advance in the two countries has been seriously slowed and America deserves (some) credit — is correct. The American strategy is far from perfect, and the gains it has produced aren't necessarily permanent, but Obama is right to say that it's helped beat ISIS back. Here's why.
How Obama's ISIS strategy works
Back in September, when Obama announced his strategy for "degrading and ultimately defeating" ISIS, it seemed like there was a single American strategy. US air power and military trainers would support friendly ground troops — the Iraqi army, Kurdish peshmerga, and moderate Syrian rebels — while they went on offense against ISIS strongholds in both Iraq and Syria.
But the actual strategy since September has been quite different. The operation's commander, Lt. General James Terry, describes the actual strategy as "Iraq first": stabilize Iraq and then work on pushing ISIS out of Syria.
That two-step strategy is based on a recognition that the US allies in Syria are far weaker than their Iraqi counterparts. In Iraq, the US is working with the central Iraqi government and the quasi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. In Syria, America's friends are a group of rag-tag militias who are currently being hammered by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda's Syrian branch), and the Syrian government.
So there are really two American military strategies. First, support the Iraqi effort to dislodge ISIS from its strongholds in western and northern Iraq. That's happening now, and with a lot of Iraqi help, it's actually been somewhat successful. Second, use airstrikes in Syria to support the Iraq effort and contain ISIS until the US can build up strong local allies (which is not yet happening, would be far more difficult, and indeed, may never happen).
America has had some real successes against ISIS
In military terms, America's strategy has been remarkably successful, at least in Iraq. Since airstrikes began in August, US and allied bombs have made it difficult for ISIS to mass its troops in the open. That makes it hard for the group to orchestrate large-scale offensives. Airstrikes have also blown up ISIS oil facilities, making it harder for the group to raise cash.
The US-trained Iraqi forces have successfully adapted to ISIS's blitzkrieg tactics and have pushed the group out of several important areas. By late October, ISIS's offensive momentum had stalled out.
Recently, ISIS has begun suffering more defeats. The most significant such setback in Iraq was in Sinjar, a critical supply line between ISIS territory in Syria and ISIS-held Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. In December, Kurdish troops finally pushed ISIS fighters out of the town, which they had held for months. While ISIS is still contesting the region, the fact that it's now battling for a strategically important area it used to control handily is a testament to its weakened state.
Meanwhile, in Syria, ISIS hasn't made major gains. While it's still firmly in control of territory including Raqaa, its eastern stronghold, the group has had trouble expanding its holdings, in part because Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is finally taking them on.
"All of their major offensives since the airstrikes began (Kobane, Dayr al-Zawr Air Base, Sha'ir Gas Field) have either been stalemates or ended in outright defeat once they squared off against Assad's troops," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told me. ISIS has made some smaller gains in Syria, Gartenstein-Ross allows, but they aren't strategic game-changers.
So Obama is absolutely right. ISIS's advance is being stopped, and American airpower deserves some of the credit.
Still, ISIS isn't anywhere near the brink of defeat
Let's not give the administration too much credit. Stopping ISIS's advance is a very different thing from actually defeating the group.
"Airpower alone is insufficient to defeat ISIS or even degrade it seriously," Jason Lyall, a Yale University expert on counterinsurgency, wrote via email. "Instead, its role is to make ISIS work harder to control and extend its territory while buying time for the Iraqi Army."
It's not clear if the Iraqis can overcome the fundamental problems that gave rise to ISIS in the first place. The conflict between Iraq's majority Shias and minority Sunnis fuels ISIS; Iraqi Sunnis don't trust the Shia-dominated government to represent them fairly. So long as they're willing to at least tolerate ISIS rather than actively support a pro-government rebellion, it'll be very hard to dislodge ISIS from its Iraqi strongholds.
In other words, one of the most important fronts in the war is in Baghdad politics, and with a whole lot of US pressure there have been some gains there. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is better than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, but still hasn't come close to reconciling the Sunni and Shia communities. There are a number of reforms Abadi could stand to implement, such as opening more government posts for Sunnis or tamping down pro-government Shia militias.
And that's just Iraq, the "easy" half of the strategy. In Syria, the US's only real allies are moderate rebels who are too weak and outnumbered to accomplish much at this point. And there's little indication that the US is able or willing to address the root cause of ISIS's rise in Syria, which is the cruelty of Bashar al-Assad's regime and its anti-Sunni sectarian politics.
Meanwhile, Syria is actually getting worse. Jabhat al-Nusra is making real gains there. The group may actually be more likely to use Syria as a base to launch attacks against American targets than even ISIS would be. So weakening ISIS might not matter that much for US security if it just ends up empowering al-Qaeda.
Obama's ISIS strategy is far from a clear success at this point, and it may well never be. But the president was right to say that, for now, it's played an important role in stopping ISIS's rampage in Iraq and Syria, which is not everything, but it's something.