The American-led bombing campaign is doing little to stem the tide of foreign fighters joining the war in Iraq and Syria. Four thousand of these fighters have joined the conflict since the allied airstrikes began, U.S. intelligence officials tell The Daily Beast.
That’s nearly as many combatants as coalition forces claimed to have killed, raising fears that if ISIS can continue to withstand a sustained air campaign, it could keep its ranks restocked for years, if not decades, to come.
“The numbers are not moving in our favor,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) told The Daily Beast last week, after emerging from a secret briefing at the Capitol with retired Marine Gen. John Allen, presidential envoy in the campaign against ISIS.
Corker added that when the strength of the U.S.-backed Syrian rebels is compared to the fighters supporting ISIS, “we are losing now in numbers.”
The Pentagon has said it has killed 6,000 fighters since coalition strikes began five months ago; the intelligence community estimates 4,000 foreign fighters have entered the fray since September. (A higher estimate, made by The Washington Post, holds that 5,000 foreign fighters have flowed into the two countries since October.)
Either way, the tally doesn’t count the suspected thousands of local Iraqi and Syrian combatants who’ve joined the conflict. So when combined, the figures paint a worrisome picture: that even without counting the number of in-country recruits, the Islamic State is able to substantially replenish its manpower on the battlefield.
“Unless we do stop something to stop the flow of foreign fighters, this conflict has the potential to go on indefinitely,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
Schiff said he couldn’t discuss specific figures, but he made the point that “the key indicator is how many people continue to join ISIS’s ranks. Because if we can’t stop that, this conflict is going to be neverending.”
Pentagon officials privately acknowledge that despite the number of Islamic State fighters they’ve killed, they have also seen ISIS adjust to the strikes, particularly in places where there are no strong ground troops to fight them. U.S. officials have refused to estimate how many new fighters have come into Iraq and Syria, but there are quiet concerns that the terror group isn’t significantly smaller than when the coalition airstrikes began. It may have even grown.
“Foreign fighters keep coming in, even though we are killing many of them,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the foreign relations committee, said. “So one of the key issues you’ve got to [address] is stopping foreign fighters.”
The Pentagon has said airstrikes cannot defeat an ideology and that the war cannot be measured in numbers. But in an opaque war like this, many are leaning on such statistics to assess the air campaign.
Some question the reliability of the Pentagon count. Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute of the Study of War, said drones and other kinds of air power cannot accurately estimate the number of ISIS fighters that have been killed.
“There’s just no way for the U.S. can do this accurately… When it comes time to killing people, the only way to really confirm it, you need boots on the ground or eyeballs on the target,” Harmer said. “As long as ISIS shows the ability to continue to recruit foreign fighters, and regenerate lost manpower, then it’s an irrelevant metric. I don’t know how long ISIS can sustain battlefield damage… but so far they haven’t collapsed.”
Harmer also pointed out that the United States has no ability of tracking how many internal recruits ISIS is able to attract.
“Good, we’re killing ISIS fighters,” he said. “Just don’t dislocate our shoulders patting ourselves on the back. What matters is: Have we broken their will or ability to fight? … So far they haven’t collapsed.”
Some argue if the Islamic State is gaining new fighters at a similar rate to which it is losing fighters, it’s a possible worst-case scenario: Airstrikes turn local opinion against the American-led coalition, while simultaneously failing to reduce the net strength of ISIS.
“If ISIS fighters are merely being killed at which they’re being replaced by foreign fighters, then you have a situation where ISIS has not lost numerical strength and has also gained public sympathy,” said Evan Barrett, a political adviser to the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a Syrian-American opposition umbrella group.
If the foreign-fighter flow problem is to be fixed, said Rep. Schiff, two things need to happen: Turkey needs to take a leading role in stopping the flow—many foreign fighters travel through its porous border. And the United States needs to empower those in the Muslim world who are speaking out against radicalism.
“We need to put additional pressure on Turkey to get serious about controlling its border… and redouble our efforts to prevent people from becoming radicalized at home,” Schiff told The Daily Beast. “The bottom line is notwithstanding the demonstrated brutality of ISIS, and maybe because of it, foreign fighters continue to flow to the region. We have not been nearly successful enough in stemming that flow.”