Trying to wipe out the ISIS is like trying to pop a balloon full of water. No matter how hard you squeeze it, the water just flows into the rest of the balloon and never builds up enough pressure to break the tough rubber. The U.S. and its allies can bomb various ISIS positions and supplies depots into rubble, and even prevent IS from advancing in key positions with help from some reasonably competent “boots on the ground”, but air power alone cannot stop IS from advancing in other areas nor prevent the thousands of new recruits that are streaming in from across the globe to join the militant organization.

According to an August 6th article the Voice of America, the more than a year long international military campaign against the Islamic State has slowed the group down considerably, but has only had quite limited success in actually stopping the growth of ISIL.

ISIS is flexible and resilient

Islamic State Expansion ISIS

U.S. and allied forces have hammered ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria for almost 13 months now, and have unquestionably degraded the group’s military capabilities across the board. According to U.S. estimates as of the end of July, allied forces had killed or wounded close to 15,000 Islamic State fighters. At least 116 tanks and 336 Humvee armored personnel carriers have been destroyed. Many thousands of sorties have also been carried out against IS targets including staging areas, command and control buildings and oil and other support infrastructure.

Working together with Iraqi and Kurdish militias, Iraqi security forces and Syrian rebels as ground support, air power from the U.S. and other nations in Europe and the Middle East have stopped and even pushed back IS in a few strategic areas such the city of Tikrit and Kobane on the Turkish border. But air power is less effective in support of offensive operations than defensive operations, so the push back against ISIL has been slow, tough and casualty intensive.

Analysts point out, however, that victories like the recent offensive to retake Tikrit are only part of the picture, as IS gains in other parts of Iraq and Syria, where the civil war continues unabated, keep the group’s momentum up and morale high.

US Air Power Not Stopping ISIS Expansion

It boils down to the fact that the limited number of boots on the ground, especially the lack of large groups of well-trained fighters, means it will very likely be a long fight against the at least 20,000 to 30,000 IS militants remaining.

Also keep in mind that some intelligence estimates have suggested that ISIS has been bringing in as many as 1,000 or more new recruits a month, although there are some recent signs the flow of international recruits might be slowing down. Political analysts also note that the Islamic state “old guard”, who are largely ex-Saddam-era military and intelligence officials, have set up highly effective training programs to make sure that the new generation of fighters and soon-to-be leaders are well-versed in both strategy and tactics.

Statement from military and political analysts

Military analysts are quite aware of the limitations of air power: “Our aircraft can hit anywhere in Syria or Iraq,” notes Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, “but we’re not really doing anything to restrain the growth of the Islamic State.”

If the U.S. is not going to put boots on the ground and rely solely on air power, that means the war against ISIS is really a battle for the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of Iraq and Syria.

Max Abrahms, an assistant professor at Northeastern University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he believes that the violent jihadist philosophy that underpins IS will eventually be the downfall of the group.

“I simply do not see how in the long term, Islamic State is going to prevail, no matter how you cut it — in terms of gaining territory, in terms of capability, manpower,” Abrahms told VOA in a recent interview, continuing to say “whereas Islamic State seems to be getting weaker in Iraq and in Syria, in some of these other areas where it has affiliates, it’s probably on the march.”