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Countering Islamic State requires a stronger US-coalition strategy

April 21, 2016

The current effort by the United States and its coalition partners is insufficient to achieve the lasting defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria, according to a new RAND report.

Successful conclusion of the campaign will require significantly increased effort by the United States across two fronts, said Linda Robinson, author of the study and a senior international policy analyst at RAND, a non-profit research organization.

First, more-comprehensive training, advising and assisting will be required to create more-capable, coordinated indigenous forces of appropriate composition in order to enable them to regain and hold territory. Second, political agreements must be forged to resolve key drivers of conflict among Iraqis and Syrians. Without these elements, resurgent extremist violence is likely.

The report assesses the military and political aspects of the campaign against the Islamic State, including the capabilities and motivations of the various counter-ISIL forces on the battlefield and the U.S.-led efforts to provide training, equipment, advice and assistance, including air support.

"The U.S. strategy to degrade and defeat ISIL relies heavily on effective partner forces to combat the group, and clear and hold the extensive territory it has seized in Iraq and Syria," Robinson said. "The partner forces are not yet able to hold territory, which is essential to lasting defeat."

While the campaign has degraded ISIL by targeting leadership and retaking a portion of territory, achieving lasting defeat of ISIL will be elusive without local forces capable of holding territory.

The key findings show that anti-ISIL forces suffer from capability gaps and a lack of coordination among disparate forces. Iraq's Counter Terrorism Service has carried the brunt of the fighting, suffering extensive casualties and materiel losses.

Lack of advisers at the operational level in Iraq and lack of support to Syrian opposition fighters limit effectiveness of indigenous forces, according to the report.

The training effort also was limited, as some 20,000 Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces were trained in 18 months, including 2,000 Iraqi special operations personnel. Efforts to arm and train Sunni tribes were halting.

In Syria, most territory was retaken by the Syrian Kurdish militia, and other efforts such as those by the New Syrian Forces were inadequate in numbers and capability. Coordination also was lacking among Syrian forces.

"In Syria, the only exit from the current zero-sum stalemate is for the United States to embrace a simultaneous campaign to defeat ISIL and put sufficient military pressure on the regime to negotiate Assad's departure," Robinson said. "That path would mean acknowledging the reality of a two-front war in Syria. The United States can support others in the anti-Assad fight while retaining its leading role in the anti-ISIL fight."

The government in Iraq, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has pledged decentralization efforts to address Sunni concerns, but lacks sufficient Shia support to enact them. Robinson recommends prioritization of the political line of effort, and achieving synergy between the military and political efforts.
The research described in the report was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The report, "Assessment of the Politico-Military Campaign to Counter ISIL and Options for Adaptation," can be found at

The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

RAND Corporation

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