Shia paramilitaries ride in military vehicles in Nibai, May 26, 2015.
Reuters

After the Islamic State (also called ISIS) took Ramadi last week, a number of prominent analysts concluded that the group is once more on the rise. Some have compared the conquest of the city, capital of the strategic Anbar province, with ISIS’ nearly uncontested sweep through Mosul almost a year ago. Others have predicted that the group could now even take Baghdad.

The Guardian reporter Martin Chulov wrote, “From Beirut to Baghdad and as far away as Riyadh, regional actors are coming to terms with an organization that can win most of its battles and successfully storm Syria and Iraq’s best-defended bastions.” Stuart Gottlieb, an adjunct professor of American foreign policy at Columbia University, asserted that “despite an eight-month American-led air campaign, ISIS remains very much on the march.” 

A resident of Tabqa waves an ISIS flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city, August 24, 2014.
A resident of Tabqa waves an ISIS flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city, August 24, 2014.
Reuters

Such assessments drastically overstate ISIS’ capabilities: Although Ramadi was a significant tactical and propaganda victory, the fact remains that the terrorist group is overextended and on the defensive throughout much of Iraq. Alarmist assessments fail to consider the complexities of the military offensive against ISIS. Any long-term campaign against a formidable opponent will involve losses and gains on both sides, and observers should be careful not to overstate what a single battle tells us about the war. 

For Iraq and counterterrorism experts, ISIS’ conquest of Ramadi should not have been a surprise. ISIS began controlling parts of the city as early as January 2014, meaning the territory was contested for at least 16 months prior to its final capture. And even as it became increasingly clear that Ramadi was on the brink of falling to ISIS, Iraqi security forces mounted only a half-hearted effort to secure the city. Indeed, it was woefully under-defended: Anti-ISIS forces in Ramadi repeatedly requested reinforcements from Baghdad, while local tribal forces begged the Iraqi military for additional ammunition and equipment months prior to the fall of the city. ISIS’ capture of Ramadi was not inevitable; the Iraqi government’s laggard response to the fighting there forced the city’s exhausted and depleted security forces to fend for themselves.

Although the offensive to retake Ramadi could take weeks or even months, the fact that Iraqi security forces have already recaptured territory demonstrates that ISIS’ gains in Ramadi can be reversed.
Ramadi’s fall was a long time coming, and it should be seen as a residual victory stemming from ISIS’ initial offensive in Anbar province in January 2014. A better test of the group’s capabilities will be whether it is able to maintain a hold on Ramadi and other territories in the coming months and build on its victory there with other substantive gains. Its hold on Ramadi may actually be quite short-lived. On May 26, Iraqi government forces and pro-government militias announced the launch of a military offensive to retake Ramadi and the rest of Anbar province, and anti-ISIS forces have already begun cutting off ISIS supply lines into the city. A member of the provincial council of Anbar stated that ISIS militants “have started withdrawing from some areas of Ramadi.” Although the offensive to retake Ramadi could take weeks or even months, the fact that Iraqi security forces have already recaptured territory demonstrates that ISIS’ gains in Ramadi can be reversed.

SILENCE THE ALARM 

Alarmist analyses of Ramadi aren’t just wrong, they’re dangerous. By inaccurately interpreting the takeover as an indication that ISIS is on the rise, commentators are playing directly into the group’s narrative.

ISIS cultivates the perception of momentum and strength to convince foreign fighters and other jihadist organizations to join, whether in Syria and Iraq or in other theaters such as Libya and Yemen, where it hopes to expand its footprint. The group has presented a victorious message even when it has experienced battlefield losses, particularly through social media. Analysts’ amplification of this message only works to ISIS’ advantage and to the detriment of the coalition fighting it. 

Shia fighters stands near a wall painted with the black flag commonly used by Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba, near the town of al-Alam, March 7, 2015.
Shia fighters stands near a wall painted with the black flag commonly used by Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba, near the town of al-Alam, March 7, 2015.
Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters
This dynamic has been a problem for some time. In November 2014, multiple leading news outlets reported that ISIS had taken over the Libyan city of Derna, when in reality, ISIS was only one group in a patchwork of militant organizations operating in the city. And this time around, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour quoted a former CENTCOM advisor saying that 6,000 Iraqi forces had fallen to just 150 ISIS fighters in Ramadi. This claim is almost certainly untrue, as ISIS is unlikely to have sent only 150 fighters to wrest control of a major urban city. This is the type of exaggerated analysis that plays into ISIS’ hands by portraying it as a super-human fighting force.  

ISIS has even incorporated Western analysts’ comments into its own propaganda: its monthly English-language magazine Dabiq dedicates a sectionentitled “In the Words of the Enemy”—to quoting Western government officials and analysts who have warned of ISIS’ growing strength.

Analysts should remember that their assessments of ISIS’ capabilities resonate far beyond the Beltway and the national media. Misinterpretations of battlefield developments and exaggerations of the jihadists’ strength complicate U.S. efforts to fight them in the arena of public opinion, and by extension, on the battlefield.