Don’t wait for this news to be trumpeted on CNN or the other networks, but the U.S. led coalition in Iraq and Syria is on the verge of decisively defeating ISIS. So says Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, perhaps the leading dispenser of elite Washington conventional wisdom on foreign policy.
In an upbeat article titled The Crumbling ISIS Caliphate, Ignatius describes a battle not yet won, but nevertheless, a landscape in transformation, hope breaking out, and evil in retreat:
The Islamic State’s headquarters in this city at the western gateway to Raqqah has been crushed like a sand castle by American bombs. At a dam complex on the Euphrates River where ISIS was torturing prisoners and hurling alleged homosexuals from a giant concrete tower, all that’s left of the extremists are militant slogans scrawled on the wall and a pile of trash.
It’s far too soon to say that life is returning to normal here after liberation, but much of the horror is over. Mines and improvised explosive devices were cleared here last week. Young children flash “V” for victory signs. Islamic beards have nearly disappeared. The most visible people sporting full beards on Thursday were American special operations soldiers who accompanied visiting U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk.[snip]
Young boys who were indoctrinated at ISIS training camps are trying to find their balance in a new world where beheadings and the chanting of Islamic slogans are over. To look at people’s wary faces, uncertain but with a trace of hope in their eyes, it’s like they’re waking up from a nightmare.
Ignatius describes a society striving to rediscover and rebuild normality. On the rubble of stones and nightmarish memories, neighborhoods are repairing, town councils are forming, and people are daring to look toward a future with peace and hope. Ignatius surveys the region and reports that Syria, too, is showing the fruits of a successful military campaign.
The black balloon of the ISIS caliphate is deflating quickly in Syria, as in Iraq. There may be up to a year of hard fighting left, but the surprise for U.S. officials is that the battle in eastern Syria is going faster and better than expected.[snip]
The Kurdish-led militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces has shown it can defeat ISIS, so long as it’s backed by U.S. air power. The Tabqa battle in May was perhaps the most ambitious and daring operation of the war so far. Five hundred SDF soldiers were airlifted across Lake Assad in V-22 Osprey helicopters in a raid that caught ISIS by surprise. The SDF suffered about 100 killed and more than 300 wounded in the bloody operation, but it worked, and in this part of the world, success breeds success. Arab refugees are now streaming toward the Kurdish-led SDF, rather than away, and 8,200 U.S.-trained Arab forces are joining the front lines.
Tellingly, but not surprisingly, Ignatius reports positive events in a focused, localized way, without much context or development. US forces are making surprising progress. They are using the basic strategy established by the Obama administration of providing expertise, firepower, and air cover, but relying on local residents, their military and militias, for the boots on the ground fighting.
Ignatius omits some key elements of the story. There is no mention of the change in leadership from a president who imposed constrictive rules of engagement, to a president who declared his plan was to eliminate the threat from ISIS. He delegated authority and decision making to his military commanders. Neither is there any acknowledgement of Defense Secretary James Mattis’s declaration that policy in fighting ISIS had changed. The US does not mean to contain and push ISIS around, from place to place. It means to pursue “merciless annihilation.” The Military Times quoted Mattis’s thinking: “The foreign fighters are the strategic threat should they return home to Tunis, to Kuala Lumpur, to Paris, to Detroit. Wherever,” Mattis said. “By taking the time to deconflict, to surround and then attack, we carry out the annihilation campaign so we don’t simply transplant this problem from one location to another.”
This is a man who intends to kill the enemy, not drop leaflets on them warning of impending attacks.
There is another leading commentator on foreign policy and conflict Ignatius might have consulted. He writes for the Washington Post and his name is David Ignatius. Just last February, that Ignatius wrote an article about the Danger of an ISIS Breakout. Ignatius warned that defeating ISIS in its strongholds might simply push its hardened Jihadis on to other nations and other hot spots. Thus metastasized, they would spread terror more broadly in the region and around the globe. The options seemed few and poor. Ignatius cautioned that the Trump administration was misplaying its hand.
Well, that was then. Today, Ignatius is happy to report good news. He’s just a bit stingy in crediting the change in management and policy that made the good news possible. But, that history will be hard to suppress.