What Causes the Confusing U.S. Policies in Their War Against ISIS?

06/01/2015 05:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

ISIS's conquest of the capital of Iraq's largest province on May 17 has sparked troubling questions about the seriousness of the United States regarding its war against the proclaimed caliphate.

The U.S. allowed the uncontested movement of ISIS's armored convoys toward Ramadi, although a May 28 report noted that U.S. intelligence and military officials told Bloomberg that they "had significant intelligence about the pending Islamic State offensive in Ramadi."

General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Iranian Quds Force, fiercely reacted to the U.S. inaction by saying the U.S. didn't do a "damn thing" to stop the extremists' advance on Ramadi. Soleimani asked, "Does it mean anything else than being an accomplice in the plot?"

The flight of Iraqi Special Forces from Ramadi was reminiscent of what happened last year during the incredible fall of Mosul. What the United States Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, suggests is not baseless. Iraqi regular forces lack the "will to fight" ISIS. ISIS has won the psychological battle.

This situation has paved the way for Hashd al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization) to take control of the war against ISIS. PM, almost exclusively Shiite, is an Iraqi state-sponsored coalition of different factions. Among the Shiite battalions, the Iran proxies, coordinated by Qasem Soleimani, are considered the most motivated and the key player in the war against ISIS.

Some say that Iran has taken the opportunity created by the emergence of ISIS to add a military dimension to its existing political influence in Iraq. The situation has made the Americans nervous. In March, Ashton Carter, when asked by Sen. John McCain whether it worries him that Iran "has basically taken over the fight," replied, "It does. It does."

Against this backdrop, Americans have taken seemingly contradictory positions in their dealings with ISIS. They run hundreds of sorties against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, yet they exercise complete neutrality against their advance on Ramadi. How can this be explained?

There are three possible explanations.

The first is outlined in the explanation Genieve David, spokeswoman for U.S. Central Command, recently gave: "Conducting air operations in heavily populated areas where ISIL hides can present challenges." She added, "Through our dynamic targeting process we carefully consider each target ... to minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage." In the case of Ramadi, however, this explanation is flawed.

Unlike the war for the liberation of Tikrit last year -- ISIS forces were inside the city then, making airstrikes very challenging -- ISIS's Ramadi convoys entered from outside the city. But as Bloomberg reported, the U.S. "watched Islamic State fighters, vehicles and heavy equipment gather on the outskirts of Ramadi before the group retook the city in mid-May [and] ... did not order airstrikes against the convoys." Therefore, collateral damage could not have been a factor.

A second theory, suggested by some observers, is that the U.S. might be using the airstrikes as a bargaining chip to force Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi to distance himself from or break with the Iran-backed Shiite militias.

The theory relies on the assumption that airstrikes are sufficient or the decisive factor in defeating a group that wages an asymmetric war. This puts the U.S. in a position to put pressure on Al-Abadi by asking him to choose a partnership with them rather than with Iran in the war against ISIS.

Although airstrikes play a role in counterinsurgency wars, the reality is that ground forces are needed to overwhelm and defeat such groups.

The retaking of the Sunni city of Tikrit in March was a glaring example of how decisive ground forces are in this asymmetric war.

In Tikrit's case, Iran-backed Shiite militias were fundamental in liberating the city. In March, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told the Senate Committee on Armed Services that about two thirds of the Iraqi forces fighting for Tikrit were Iran-backed Shiite militias. This signals that, logically, the U.S.'s drawdown of U.S. airstrikes would likely push Al-Abadi even closer to the pro-Iranian Shiite forces.

The third explanation for the apparently contradictory American positions pertaining to ISIS could be that the White House is oscillating between confronting two threats.

The first threat is the expansion and advances of ISIS, while the second is the perceived danger of the formation of an organized and centralized pro-Iranian Shiite military force outside the regular Iraqi army. The latter could play a role similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where a pro-Iranian Shiite military force could gain an influential and assertive position in Iraq's politics. If the Americans view the developments in Iraq in this manner, then a complete dismantling of ISIS in Iraq would be tantamount to presenting the upper hand to Iran. That is why the Americans have taken contradictory positions in their fight against ISIS.

In his May 28 interview with France 24, John Allen, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, was asked, "Aren't things getting a little bit too complex? You'll -- indirectly, you'll be fighting almost alongside Iran, after all."

Allen contradicted Martin Dempsey by saying that "the preponderance of the Shia militias that are in the field" is not linked to the Iranian government. Further contradicting Dempsey's previous statements, Allen said that those forces were "the Shia militia elements" that retook Tikrit and that the Americans worked with. He emphasized, "We're not supporting those [pro-Iranian] militias."

The situation has left analysts scratching their heads regarding this American strategy. Many are asking how American bombers can attack ISIS targets only to support non-Iran-related Shiite forces while excluding Iran proxies benefiting from the airstrikes.