The Defense Department released a map last week showing territory where it is has pushed ISIS back, claiming that the terrorist group is “no longer able to operate freely in roughly 25 to 30 percent of populated areas of Iraqi territory where it once could.” This was touted as evidence of success by numerous news outlets.
Pushing ISIS back is clearly a good step. But the information from the Pentagon is, at best, misleading and incomplete, experts in the region and people on the ground tell The Daily Beast. They said the map misinforms the public about how effective the U.S.-led effort to beat back ISIS has actually been. The map released by the Pentagon excludes inconvenient facts in some parts, and obscures them in others.
The Pentagon’s map assessing the so-called Islamic State’s strength has only two categories: territory held by ISIS currently, and territory lost by ISIS since coalition airstrikes began in August 2014. The category that would illustrate American setbacks—where ISIS has actually gained territory since the coalition effort began—is not included.
“Taken in isolation, the map definitely gives an impression that anti-ISIS efforts have succeeded in pushing the group back along a northern and north-eastern peripheries, but it fails in one huge respect—it fails to specifically identify territory gained by ISIS during the same period,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
The map also shows areas where ISIS is “dominant,” as opposed to the terrorist group’s operational reach—the areas where it can inflict violence.
“A far more important facet of assessing our success or failure is measuring ISIS’s capacity to continue offensive operations and to reach beyond its lines of actual control. In that respect, I’d say ISIS has been very minimally challenged since August 2014 and its only this kind of measurement that will persuade local actors on the ground that ISIS is losing,” Lister told The Daily Beast.
The Defense Department, naturally, doesn’t agree. “ISIL’s own doctrine says it must gain and hold territory. This map shows they are not achieving their stated goals,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told The Daily Beast, using the government’s preferred acronym for the terror group.
But Warren seemed to acknowledge that the map isn’t entirely accurate.
The document “was not meant to be a detailed tactical map—it is simply a graphic used to explain the overall situation,” he said.
The entire battlefield of the ISIS war isn’t depicted, however. For some reason, the Pentagon’s ISIS map excludes the entire western side of Syria—which, coincidentally or not, is an area where ISIS has gained a significant foothold since the U.S.-led bombing effort began last year.
Western Syria is also an area dominated by the Syrian regime, led by President Bashar al-Assad. The United States has insisted that Assad must leave office, but has not elucidated a clear strategy for how to compel this to occur.
Jennifer Cafarella, a fellow specializing in Syria at the Institute for the Study of War, said that while the map, as presented, looked accurate, she would “highlight that the map doesn’t extend to include western Syria, where there is growing ISIS presence… the map cuts off, essentially ignoring ISIS in the Syrian-Lebanese border region and Damascus.”
ISIS gains in the area excluded from the Pentagon’s map should be noted, Cafarella continued, because “they are a forward investment for ISIS that will create long-term opportunities for further expansion into zones in which coalition airstrikes are unlikely, at least in the near term, to penetrate..”
Since airstrikes began in August, ISIS has also shown its force on the northeastern suburbs of Damascus, near Qabun. More recently, ISIS made international news through a violent takeover of the area surrounding a Palestinian refugee camp called Yarmouk, which U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has described as “the deepest circle of hell.”
The Department of Defense marks off the Salamiyeh district, in central Syria, as ISIS-controlled. What it doesn’t note is that ISIS expanded into this area after the coalition airstrikes began, and that the so-called Islamic State is threatening the lives of the locals, who are largely Ismaili—a group of Muslims that ISIS militants view as apostates.
“While the Obama administration says that it is fighting ISIS in Syria, ISIS is actually expanding into Salamiyeh… without [being confronted by] a single U.S. airstrike,” said Omar Hossino, director of public relations for the Syrian American Council, a grassroots organization that helps bolster opposition to the Assad regime. “The people of Salamiyeh are under threat of genocide, especially the Ismaili majority.”
Abu Ali, the pseudonym of a resident of Salamiyeh, said in an email to The Daily Beast that ISIS operations in the area “have intensified during the recent period in Salamiyeh district, which indicate the expansion of this organization and the expansion of its military operations, at a time when it is not being shown any resistance or an appropriate response by both the international coalition.”
“This frequency, and acceleration of [ISIS] military operations in the vicinity of the city… justifies concern,” Abu Ali continued, “as it strengthens the suspicious intersection of interests between the regime and [ISIS] to target Salamiyeh as a calculated assault on the minorities in Syria.”
In a note (PDF) accompanying the map, the Pentagon describes ISIS gains in Syria to be offset by ISIS losses elsewhere in the country, a contention disputed by scholar Charles Lister.
“I’d fairly forcefully debate that assessment as being more than a bit positive,” he told the Beast.
And there are at least two other areas in Iraq and Syria where the Obama administration’s information notes ISIS control without pointing out that it happened after U.S.-led airstrikes began. In Deir Ezzor, ISIS has encircled neighborhoods and cut off thousands of people from the basic necessities of life.
“In recent months, ISIS has tightened its grip around the city of Deir Ezzor, encircling some 200,000 civilians in both the Al-Joura and Al-Qusour districts and further cutting them off from both food and medical aid,” said Evan Barrett, a political adviser for Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a Syrian-American opposition umbrella group. “Regular appeals are made from the city for support, including in the form of international strikes, but according to Syrian independent broadcasters, strikes in the province focus on ISIS oil assets and border areas far from the besieged provincial capital.”
The area of Hit district, in Iraq’s Anbar province, fell to ISIS in October 2014, well after U.S.-led airstrikes began, noted Sinan Adnan, a pseudonym for an Iraqi-American employee at the Institute for the Study of War.
And while the Pentagon’s map is generally accurate in showing territory that the U.S.-led coalition has taken back from ISIS, it omits that many of these areas still remain unpopulated by their original inhabitants.
“For the most part, Iraqi Sunnis are not being allowed back into their areas,” Adnan said “Depopulated communities would be a ripe environment for a new insurgency when and if ISIS is defeated.”