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Doyle McManus: Is Obama’s strategy against Islamic State working?

One year ago, President Obama launched airstrikes in Iraq to prevent the insurgent armies of Islamic State from advancing to the gates of Baghdad and conquering the country. Within weeks, American aircraft began bombing Islamic State’s bases in neighboring Syria, too, and Obama declared his war aims: “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant group.

A year later, who’s winning the war? The answer depends on whom you ask.

“ISIS is losing,” the Obama administration’s diplomatic point man, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, said at an Aspen Institute conference last month. “We’ve seen, I think, some significant progress.”

“Obviously, ISIS is winning,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a frequent critic of the administration, said in a Senate hearing last month. “Iraqis can’t do it themselves. That’s why they’re losing.”

“I believe they are in a stalemate,” the incoming commandant of the Marine Corps, Lt. Gen. Robert B. Neller, replied. The U.S. air campaign “has stemmed the tide for ISIS, but it is not removing them from Iraq, so it is not succeeding right now,” he said.

On the surface, Neller’s cautious assessment appears closest to the truth.

Both sides have suffered reverses. Islamic State has lost about 10 percent of the land it held at its peak, including the city of Tikrit in central Iraq and a swath of land taken by Kurdish forces in northern Syria. But Islamic State stunned the Iraqi army in May by seizing the provincial capital of Ramadi, only 60 miles west of Baghdad.

U.S. military commanders say the Iraqi army is slowly advancing on Ramadi. The force includes about 500 Sunni Muslim tribal fighters trained by U.S. advisers, a critically important factor in an area whose predominantly Sunni population distrusts the Shiite-dominated army.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s decision to seal its border with Syria should make it more difficult for Islamic State to access supplies and recruits. The Turks have also joined the U.S.-led air war, and agreed to help push Islamic State at least 20 miles back from the border, creating a de facto “safe zone” for Syrian rebels and refugees. If that scheme works, it would make it more difficult for Islamic State recruits from other countries to reach the battle zone.

In assessing progress, remember, too, that there’s more to this war than meets the eye. One aspect that gets little attention: clandestine raids carried out by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command. In May, American troops landed briefly in eastern Syria and killed an Islamic State leader, Abu Sayyaf, who ran some of the group’s financial operations. This was the only such raid that the White House has acknowledged, but there have been more in both Syria and Iraq, and they are said to be disrupting Islamic State’s leadership.

Whatever progress has occurred has been slow, a product, in part, of restrictions Obama has imposed to ensure that local forces, not Americans, take responsibility for ground combat.

McCain and other Republican critics have long complained that Obama’s “light footprint” policy has made it impossible to win. Some Democrats agree, too: Michele Flournoy, a former top official in Obama’s Pentagon, co-wrote a report charging that the effort has been “under-resourced” and proposing that advisers be allowed to operate closer to combat.

Obama and his aides have rebuffed those suggestions, and say their strategy is already working. Are they right? The answer should become more clear in the next few months.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.