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Conservatives are using this map to bash Obama's ISIS policy. It's wrong.

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

There's a frightening map going around the internet, and particularly conservative corners of the web: it suggests that ISIS has almost doubled its territory in Syria since American airstrikes in the country began in September. Scary!

(Coalition for a Democratic Syria)

Critics of the Obama administration have used on this map to mock President Obama, who claimed in the State of the Union that American airpower was "stopping [ISIS]'s advance," and to deride his strategy as a horrible failure.

There are quite a lot of valid criticisms of Obama's ISIS policy. But this map isn't one of them. ISIS's expansion really has been stopped, and that map gives a deeply misleading portrayal of how the situation in Syria is actually going down.

The first thing to note is that much of that territory marked as conquered by ISIS wasn't actually conquered. The area southwest of ISIS's stronghold Raqqa, for example, is largely unoccupied Homs desert.

"It is largely rural and not an area that ISIS has had to fight for," The Daily Beast's Tim Mak explains in a judicious write-up of related maps. "The group took control of uncontested parts of the countryside while skirting key regime strongholds in the area."

Meanwhile, recent ISIS offensives have ended very poorly. "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]'s only major territorial gains since airstrikes began in September have been in the Ayn al-Arab district of Aleppo, with some incremental gains on the fringes of Suwayda," he continued. Ayn al-Arab refers to a district in the far north of the country, and Suwayda is both a province and a city in the far southwest (Gartenstein-Ross is referring to the province).

Independent research backs Gartenstein-Ross's account up. Here's a map from just before the airstrikes started from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a right-leaning think tank that does stellar work tracking the ISIS campaign. Pay special attention to the red splotch in the northwest of Syria (Ayn al-Arab):

isw isis sanctuary map September 10

(Institute for the Study of War)

Now here's ISW's map from January 15, 2015:

(Institute for the Study of War)

That doesn't look like a vast territorial expansion of the sort conveyed in the map up top, does it?

You see the same thing in maps from Thomas van Linge, another close observer of the Syrian war. Here's van Linge's map in August (ISIS area is in grey and black):

thomas van linge syria map august

(Thomas van Linge)

And here's his most recent map, from January 15:

thomas van linge january 15 syria

(Thomas van Linge)

Once again, you see gains in Ayn al-Arab in the north (that's the shrinking yellow blob). You also see some gains in the southwest countryside near Suwayda. You also see another direct contradiction of the map at the top of this post.

That's because those supposedly massive gains didn't actually happen. Gartenstein-Ross explained, "If you compare [the current lack of progress] with ISIL's pre-airstrike offensive, where the group successfully captured the majority of Dayr al-Zawr, consolidated control of Raqqa through their capture of Tabqa Air Base, and then moved into Ayn al-Arab, the fuzzy math that's at play becomes clear. The claim that [ISIS] now rules one-third of Syria needs to be balanced by the fact that they've had that since June."

That's not say that the minor ISIS gains since their strikes are totally meaningless. Jennifer Cafarella, a fellow at ISW, told Mak that the new seizures in the west could be used as staging grounds for attacks against actually significant targets.

But, in the grand scheme of things, this doesn't constitute major progress for ISIS, and does not back up the map being passed around by conservative critics of Obama.

It's also worth noting the source of that map. It's from the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a Syrian opposition group that supports an expanded US air campaign and thus has a clear incentive to exaggerate ISIS's rise.

The truth is that ISIS really is being slowed down in Syria. It's actually being rolled back in some parts of Iraq. While this doesn't mean ISIS is anywhere near the verge of defeat, it does mean the group's rapid expansion has ended. And US airstrikes really do deserve some of the credit.

Correction: An earlier version of the post suggested that Gartenstein-Ross was referring to Suwayda city when he said ISIS had made "incremental gains on the fringes of Suwayda." He later wrote in to clarify that he was referring to Suwayda province. The post has been updated to reflect that.

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