War against ISIS: Successes and failures

Hear from the people who made the journey inside the minds and the hearts of ISIS. Watch Fareed Zakaria’s special report, “Blindsided: How ISIS Shook the World,” Monday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN.

Story highlights

ISIS scored victories by taking Ramadi and holding onto Mosul

The U.S.-backed coalition was successful in killing a top ISIS leader over the weekend

CNN  — 

Is ISIS winning? There are no easy answers in the back-and-forth conflict that dominates the Mideast.

On Sunday, the group also known as the Islamic State scored a major victory by seizing Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar province in Iraq, after a year of fighting.

On Saturday, coalition forces announced their own win. U.S. Special Operations forces penetrated deep into eastern Syria, killed a top ISIS leader and took his wife prisoner.

Though it’s hard to say what “winning” against ISIS would look like over the long term, here is a take on the most recent successes and failures in the fight against ISIS.

Failures in the fight against ISIS

The fall of Ramadi

This was a major victory for ISIS and a big failure for the coalition. It raises new questions about the fighting ability of the Iraqi army and the overall coalition strategy against ISIS.

By taking the city, ISIS tightened control of the Anbar province and gained a base of operations only 70 miles from Baghdad. The massacre of anti-ISIS residents is expected. Thousands of civilians are fleeing the city.

For the United States, Ramadi is painfully galling because U.S. forces fought bitterly to take the city from Islamic militants in 2005 and 2006.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tried to put a good face on the situation, saying the city can be taken back. “I am absolutely confident in the days ahead that will be reversed,” he said from Seoul on Monday.

Lone-wolf attacks

Attackers acting on their own have injected an element of fear into Western society. That’s a win for ISIS on a psychological level.

Young men who became home-grown fighters for ISIS, or at least expressed sympathy with the Islamic militant organization, staged deadly attacks in Paris, Canada’s Parliament and Sydney, Australia, among other places.

Some of these young men never even left their countries to train in the Mideast. They were converted by ISIS’s social media message.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last week repeated his call for lone-wolf attacks. In an online message, he urged more recruits from around the world to “fight in his land or wherever that may be.”

If there’s any consolation for people in the United States, many of the wannabe ISIS fighters are poorly trained in terrorist tactics and strategy. For instance, a young man arrested in Kansas openly discussed his plans to bomb an army base with FBI agents who’d noticed his Facebook messages about the “huge adrenaline rush” of dying for jihad.


Mosul remains a symbol of Iraqi military failure in the face of ISIS ferocity.

Last June, ISIS fighters surged toward Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Iraqi security forces and police dropped their weapons and ran. The city was overrun.

ISIS told Christians to convert to Islam – or die. Beheadings took place. Thousands fled. Coalition forces pounded the city with airstrikes but ISIS dug in.

After Tikrit, the coalition was very optimistic about retaking Mosul. An April or May attack was foreseen.

Well, forget about it.

With the fall of Ramadi, nobody is talking about Mosul, located 560 kilometers (350 miles) northwest of Baghdad.

ISIS still owns Mosul.

Successes in the fight against ISIS

The killing of Abu Sayyaf

This was a win for the United States, but how big?

The U.S. got its hands on ISIS intelligence that might help identify other ISIS targets and would help cut off the flow of money to the group, but the value of that intelligence won’t be known immediately.

There are questions about the importance of Abu Sayyaf.

On Saturday, the United States announced that a man known by the nom de guerre Abu Sayyaf was killed during an attack by the U.S. Army’s Delta Force in eastern Syria.

National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said he was a senior ISIS leader who oversaw illicit oil and gas operations – a key source of revenue for the group.

But Michael Weiss, author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” said Abu Sayyaf was largely unknown to close observers of the organization. ISIS hasn’t made significant money from captured oil fields since U.S. bombers began striking its infrastructure, he said.


Tikrit belongs in the win column for the coalition and the Iraqi military. At least for now.

ISIS and Iraqi forces fought a back-and-forth battle for this northern city which was Saddam Hussein’s hometown. ISIS finally took control and hoisted its trademark black flag over major buildings.

ISIS is reported to have massacred 1,500-plus Iraqi military cadets. Mass graves were found inside the presidential compound.

But in April, Iraqi forces and Shiite militas, with help from Iran, drove ISIS fighters from Tikrit. They found destruction and booby-trapped vehicles throughout the city.


The coalition won in Kobani – but at a terrible cost.

ISIS took the city last fall after a brutal back-and-forth battle. Strategically, Kobani was very valuable. It sits on the border with Turkey and would have given ISIS a complete swath of land between its self-declared capital in Raqqa, Syria, and Turkey.

Kurdish fighters – known as the YPG, or People’s Protection Units – attacked Kobani on the ground with backing by an extensive campaign of airstrikes by the U.S.-led international coalition.

Last January, ISIS abandoned the city. Will anybody want to return?

The bombardment was so intense that the city is almost uninhabitable now. Drone footage on CNN.com showed the dramatic destruction.

Idriss Nassan, a spokesman for the Syrian Kurds, who again control the town, told CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh: “It is 70% destroyed. The problem is that we do not have enough machinery to remove the debris or materials with which to rebuild. The cost will be billions.”

The growth of the anti-ISIS coalition

One encouraging sign for the United States is that other countries are helping fight ISIS.

Since August, 18 nations have joined the coalition against ISIS. Mideast nations Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan have taken part in airstrikes on ISIS targets, the U.S. military said. Other countries have provided support.

More than 3,900 air missions have been flown against ISIS

“The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone,” President Obama said last year.