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Is U.S. Gaining Or Losing Ground Against ISIS?


We're going to take a closer look now at this campaign, but with an eye towards the Syrian border, where our next guest says that ISIS has been gaining ground. Jennifer Cafarella is a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

Welcome to the program.

JENNIFER CAFARELLA: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So first describe what's meant by gaining ground here. Are we talking about ISIS taking territory where there are many people? Or is this territory that's not contested or highly populated?

CAFARELLA: What we've seen in recent months is ISIS begin to shift resources into central Syria and into western Syria, taking advantage of small ISIS cells that had existed in the past and really utilizing a corridor of terrain that is unpopulated and relatively sparse in eastern Homs.

CORNISH: So is that moving weapons? Moving people? What does that mean?

CAFARELLA: It includes both moving people and weapons. So we see ISIS convoys emerging in places like the outskirts of Damascus and inside of the Qalamoun corridor on the border with Lebanon. That is an increase from ISIS's past involvement in that area.

CORNISH: So what's the concern here? I mean, you're describing remote areas, not very populated.

CAFARELLA: Well, this isn't the sort of thunder run on Mosul-style ISIS expansion. It is nonetheless an increased ISIS presence in an area that has predominantly been either held by the Assad regime or by rebels. So the expansion of ISIS into this zone greatly complicates the ability of the international coalition to conduct airstrikes against ISIS and to actually deter ISIS momentum and prevent further expansion.

CORNISH: Now, is this all that much of a surprise given that the U.S. has focused primarily on Iraq?

CAFARELLA: No, it is not a surprise given that the current coalition campaign in Syria is predominantly focused on deterring the ISIS momentum in Kobani and rolling that back, as well as disrupting leadership networks and ISIS's ability to extract oil revenue. However, it does highlight the limitations of a strategy limited to disrupting ISIS inside of Syria, which does not actually prevent ISIS from establishing new strongholds and new networks in differing terrain inside of the country.

CORNISH: So the counter-argument that's been made about this is that ISIS also could affect be spreading itself thin, right? By holding so much territory spread over both these countries?

CAFARELLA: That is correct, but I would highlight that expansion into Western Syria does actually complicate the ability to conduct airstrikes against ISIS. Because whereas in eastern Syria, there is relatively few other actors besides ISIS operating in the terrain, in western Syria, the ability to identify where the actual ISIS cells are is immensely difficult.

CORNISH: What are the other factors contributing to the spread of ISIS in Syria, especially when there are competing rebel groups like the al-Nusra front which is al-Qaida connected, a competitor group to ISIS, and also the civil war against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad?

CAFARELLA: Other factors include the fact that large elements of the Syrian opposition are still looking for allies in the fight against Assad. So that presents an opportunity for ISIS to present itself as an ally in the fight against the regime and in doing so to secure additional pledges of allegiance from disillusioned, and in large ways, disenfranchised rebel groups.

CORNISH: What does this mean in terms of recruits, and what does that mean for calculus of this battle on the ground?

CAFARELLA: One of the ways in which we've seen ISIS expand into Western Syria includes by reaching out to local rebel commanders and encouraging these rebel commanders to defect to the ISIS cause, to allow ISIS to establish its own network inside of Western Syria, and to expand in that way.

CORNISH: And we should note that your group, the Institute for the Study of War, has advocated for more aggressive action by the U.S. generally, right? That's the stance. But the Obama administration has been very clear about not necessarily wanting to get involved in Syria's civil war. Why should that calculus change?

CAFARELLA: The point that I would highlight is that the long term effectiveness of the strategy in Iraq is actually reliant on an effective strategy inside of Syria. And while the Syria environment is incredibly complex, it is actually crucial for the success of the international coalition's effort against ISIS that a credible ground partner for the fight against ISIS emerge inside of Syria. And that requires a heightened level of U.S. engagement and an evaluation of a more holistic strategy inside Syria.

CORNISH: Jennifer Cafarella. She's the Evans Hanson fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CAFARELLA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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