The short version: ISIS is winning because the major players in this fight are not working together and even working against each other.
The long version is more complicated. The US, UK and France are all working well together, but they are not working with Iran, Russia and Syria who are working well together. Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Turkey have problematic and convoluted interests.
Is ISIS winning?
Yes. However, US policymakers would probably disagree with the statement that ISIS is winning. ISIS is not winning because they took down a Russian aircraft or because of a successful series of attacks in Paris. Winning to ISIS is not just ISIS killing more of us than we kill of them. Winning to ISIS is to make us afraid. That is a definition of terrorism -- to terrorize or to make people afraid for political purposes. ISIS has been successful in this. For example, the West is tightening our security, in the US in particular questioning the prudence of its refugee program, and we have US Republican presidential candidates raising the alarm about Muslims and Mosques in the US and abroad. All of this is due to fear caused by ISIS. By this metric, ISIS is winning.
Additionally, ISIS is winning because they are able to continue to recruit young disaffected men who have little chance of gainful employment or build a family, a great source of pride. These are individuals who did not grow up understanding Islam and the nuances of it. As a consequence, many terrorists came to become radicalized later in life because they are drawn to the sensational and exciting aspects of the promises of ISIS leaders.
In Europe, these ISIS terrorists are homegrown. Their ability to move in and out of Europe with their passports, as well as the ease with which they can travel inside of Europe complicates the ability to combat ISIS in Europe. This is where intelligence agencies and law enforcement, not the military, are critical.
The assertion that ISIS is winning because President Obama has not taken more of a leadership role is political. President Obama campaigned on a walking back from the Middle East. This is what Americans, as well as Middle East citizens and world citizens wanted. ISIS was the JV team but it grew. France, Russia or any of the other countries that have been attacked by ISIS could have stepped up and taken the lead in fighting ISIS before they were attacked, just as well as the US could have. President Obama came into office in part because of the idea that the US needs a more humble foreign policy as well as to not be the world's police force.
Who's on First?
The US has said that removing Bashar Al Assad from power is their main priority. However, Russia and Iran support Assad and Syria.
If the US or her allies go into certain places in Syria to target ISIS, they will likely run into conflict with Russia, Iran and Assad's forces, something that could result in accidental clashes. Additionally, if the US and or her allies go into Syria to try to remove Assad, they have to contend not only with Russia and Iran but also ISIS who would love to have US troops on the ground in Syria. Having said that, it is not the policy of the US military to avoid going into places where our soldiers face danger. We avoid it when we can to preserve life, but we do it when necessary when our vital national security interests are at stake.
With the US and her allies fighting against Assad while Russia is backing Assad, ISIS is able to operate where Russia and the US are not cooperating and ISIS is also able to capitalize on their lack of coordinated efforts. What compounds the issue is that Russia has targeted the Kurdish Syrian opposition group that the US supported. The Kurdish opposition to Syria is opposed ISIS as well as Turkey, a US ally. The US, therefore, was supporting a group that opposed its own NATO ally.
Because of the Friday the 13th ISIS attack in Paris, France has been stepping up attacks on ISIS in Syria and Iraq. But they do this without the support of Assad, Russia or Iran, which if France had their support, could and would be more effective. But France working with Russia and Iran complicates its working relationship with the US.
Due to the downing of a Russian aircraft, Russia now has a problem with Turkey. And Turkey was fighting against ISIS but also against opposition groups supported by the US who were fighting ISIS.
Saudi Arabia is a critical ally in this fight. By getting moderate Sunnis to fight against ISIS, it lends legitimacy to the fight against ISIS. But Saudi Arabia does this at the risk of upsetting the conservative Salafis in its own borders. But that is not reason to not act. ISIS is a Salafi group, which is a spin off of violent jihadi Sunni Islam. Not all Sunnis are violent but by definition Salafi Muslims are ultra conservative and many prone to, if not actively engaged in, violence. Put another way, the Sunni majority in Saudi Arabia share a common religious background, which is not to say they cooperate in terrorism. A major obstacle to Saudi Arabia getting moderate Sunnis is that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to want to work with Iran because of the Shiite/Sunni divide as well as to work with Iran would legitimatize Iran's influence in the region. Iran's influence in the region is limited because of the Shiite/Sunni divide, where most of the Middle East is Sunni.
Do US Priorities Need to be Revisited?
The US places Assad over ISIS as the bigger threat because Assad has killed 8,000 of his own people, and another 250,000 have been killed by government forces in the four year civil war, and over one million have been displaced. ISIS has killed in comparison about 1,500.
The US and her allies need to decide if they are going to continue to put Assad as the main enemy or ISIS as the main enemy. Pursuing both with equal vigor impedes progress.
The idea that Assad must go to get rid of ISIS is problematic. Getting rid of Assad would not only be a hurdle because of Iran and Russia's support of Assad, getting rid of Assad would create a power vacuum, which ISIS would try to fill. In this power vacuum, we could see what we saw in Iraq after Saddam lost power. Assad, for all of his flaws, was able to exercise a form of control over Syria and this somewhat limits ISIS's ability to spread. This does not legitimize Assad, but it is a recognition of a role he could play in getting rid of ISIS.
The advantage of the US working with Russia, Iran and Syria is that with that coalition they would have better access to fight ISIS in Syria. Without Russia, Iran and Assad, taking ISIS on in Syria is more complicated.
Until the US, UK, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey starting working with Russia and Iran and therefore Assad and Syria, ISIS will continue to be able to operate in the spaces between. The US could try to convince Russia and Iran to join their coalition but there exists the issue of Assad, which is a primary concern of the US.
The nations that need to work together are not working together. By not working together, they are undoing some of the advances that each other make, allowing ISIS to operate in the cracks and disagreements.
President Obama said that Russia and Iran are in a coalition with Syria and they are alone. That may be true, but they have better access to Syria and therefore much of ISIS in a way than the US, UK, France and even Turkey have. Why?
The traditional model of terrorism also does not completely fit the ISIS threat. Much like Hamas and Hezbollah, ISIS attempts to create more than just a terror organization but a civil society, albeit one that would not operate effectively and likely with gross human rights violations.
Not only does the US need to exert its military power, it must be able to draw from its political power, economic power and soft power, which is the ability to get others to do what you want through the power of appeal to common interests. The one shared interest in all parties is to defeat ISIS. That should be the lowest common denominator that the US and her allies should pursue. Getting rid of Assad could and should come after ISIS is defeated.
Wise leadership knows when to adapt and when to stay the course. President Obama and therefore the US has an opportunity to reassert its leadership role in the Middle East.
Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. He lived and worked in the Middle East and has a master's in international relations from the London School of Economics, and from the Harvard School of Government.