The White House didn’t have much to say about the fall of Ramadi on Friday. Hardly surprising since this was a demoralizing blow to Operation Inherent Resolve whose mission is to “destroy” ISIS. But the White House was more than happy to take credit for a raid by Delta Force into Syria on Saturday that resulted in the death of Abu Sayyaf (a nom de guerre), described as a mid-level figure in ISIS who was responsible for its finances, and the capture of two women–Abu Sayyaf’s wife and Yazidi slave.
The raid was a real achievement but a limited one. No doubt “sensitive site exploitation” (i.e., the computers and papers found in Abu Sayyaf’s house), along with potential interrogation of Mrs. Sayyaf, will reveal more information about ISIS’ structure and operations. The operation would have been even more successful if Abu Sayyaf had been taken alive for interrogation and if the White House had held off on its desire to take credit, giving the Joint Special Operations Command more time to digest the collected intelligence before ISIS reacted by shutting down any operations that might have been compromised.
But let’s not get carried away. Even if the raid had killed a far more senior ISIS leader it would not have made a strategic difference. After all back in 2006, JSOC killed Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the founder of AGI (predecessor of ISIS), and that did not prevent AQI from becoming stronger than ever. It took a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign in 2007-2008 to bring AQI to the brink of defeat and it will take a similar campaign today to defeat ISIS.
In this Council on Foreign Relations policy innovation memorandum I outlined what such a campaign would look like “Leadership targeting,” i.e., mounting more of the kind of raids that killed Abu Sayyaf, is an important line of operations but it’s only one line of operations.
More important is to create Sunni military forces in both Syria and Iraq that are able and willing to fight against ISIS with American help. But there is scant sign of progress on this front, because the Obama administration has held U.S. policy in Iraq hostage to the dictates of Baghdad, where the Shiite sectarians who are in control are, to put it mildly, unenthusiastic about arming Sunnis.
That’s why Ramadi fell and why there will be little success in rolling back ISIS’ gains in Syria and Iraq–because Sunnis still see ISIS as the lesser evil compared to domination by Shiite extremists armed and supported by Iran. That is the fundamental strategic problem that must be addressed in order to make progress against ISIS. Special Operations raids, no matter how successful, are of scant importance by comparison.