By Patrick Bahzad
After the Islamic State’s recent and overwhelming victory in Ramadi, the Iraqi government as well as analysts in D.C. seemed to be in a state of shock and disarray. ISIS is officially losing ground since the start of the US led airstrikes in September 2014. With the rout of the Iraqi army in Ramadi however, this narrative becomes harder and harder to sell. Earlier this year, victory of Shia militias in Tikrit had been seen as the beginning of the end for Abubakr al-Baghdadi’s organization. That assessment has now been called seriously into doubt, as the armies of the Caliphate seem to march on. Even though it is difficult to give an accurate estimate of ISIS’ military capabilities, they’re a force to be reckoned with, and they can challenge anything the current Iraqi government can muster against them.
Why months of airstrikes and hundreds of “sorties” haven’t stopped the Jihadis has several reasons. On the one hand, there are undoubtedly unresolved issues between Washington and Baghdad that have a bearing on the proficiency of the counter-IS campaign. Recent reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), stating that “coalition” airstrikes killed 170 ISIS members in the past months in Syria, should be taken with utmost caution. An allegedly independent opposition NGO, the SOHR is run out of London by a few individuals with a dubious track-record. According to – hopefully – more reliable accounts, i.e. the daily briefings of US Central Command, the first three months of consistent airstrikes managed to hit about 300 vehicles, but only 25 ISIS fighters …
This sobering result is more in line with developments we're seeing on the ground, as the death of several mid- to high-ranking ISIS leaders has not been enough to halt the overall momentum of the Caliphate’s troops, at least for now. The fact of the matter is, the Islamic State is an organization that has survived years of attempts by the Americans to destroy it. They know how to survive against an enemy that rules the skies and can see about everything that moves on the ground. They’re also hard to penetrate or read, which is very much related to the experience brought forward by former Baathist army and intelligence officers who joined the organization. What recent events in Ramadi have shown to those who might have forgotten about it, is that the Caliphate actually has an army. It is not exactly built along the same rationale as Western armed forces, but it has structure, “command and control” and a genuine ability to maneuver and fight, unlike some of the Iraqi government troops.