Islamic State Is Not Even Close to Defeat
The terror group's adaptability allows it to survive and thrive despite many enemies
Islamic State is a formidable power in its own right. Even more striking — the past two years have constituted a perfect storm, one that allowed the jihadist army to endure and even expand, in parts.
The Syrian government lost Raqqa, its first provincial capital to fall to rebels, in early 2013. By January 2014, the city had fallen to Islamic State. The well-organized Islamist army consolidated its control by brutally crushing opposition to its authority.
Other armed groups including Jabhat Al Nusra and the Free Syrian Army tried to reverse these early gains, but that all changed when I.S. blitzed across northern Iraq in June 2014.
Since then, I.S. has moved to consolidate its enormous territory. It symbolically dismantled the international “Sykes-Picot” border which demarcates Syria and Iraq, and declared its caliphate to be a tangible on-the-ground reality.
But more foreboding for the region’s future, I.S. is showing that it can defend territory on multiple fronts — and the longer it can do that, the better the group’s long-term prospects.
“The Islamic State prospers even while under fire by broadcasting its ability to endure,” Jessica Lewis McFate of the Institute for the Study of War wrote in the October issue of CTC Sentinel, West Point’s counter-terror journal.
“The Islamic State also accelerates its expansion under conditions of limited duress, allowing it to counter-balance any losses while also being able to boast of expanding its caliphate. The Islamic State is an adaptive enemy, and its defenses are difficult to break, despite the host of adversaries it currently faces.”
That’s certainly the case in Iraq. In Anbar province, I.S. capitalized on a grassroots Sunni insurrection which saw the government as nothing more than an oppressive Shi’ite regime. When the police and army lost control, I.S. moved in and planted its black flag on Iraqi soil.
Perhaps anticipating an Iraqi counterattack, I.S. moved many of its captured weaponry — much of it American made — into Syria. The militants effectively destroyed the Syrian army’s remaining units in Raqqa province in late August 2014 with the fall of Tabqa Air Base. Further, I.S. overran most of Syria’s eastern province of Deir Ez Zor. An isolated Syrian army contingent holds part of the provincial capital.
I.S. attacked Iraq’s Kurdish region in August 2014, which provoked the first U.S. air strikes against the group. September 2014 would see the beginning of the U.S.-led air campaign in northeastern Syria and the siege of the Syrian Kurdish border city of Kobani.
That siege persisted for four-and-a-half-months. Despite I.S. overrunning more than 300 Kurdish villages, displacing 400,000 people and destroying much of Kobani, the Kurds managed to repel the besieging I.S. forces with U.S. support. The Kurds have been I.S.’s most formidable enemy in Syria.
McFate noted that I.S. does not appear to be reinforcing its troops along this front, which leaves Raqqa vulnerable. This may be because I.S. “regards its northern adversaries as formidable,” McFate wrote. “However, Kurdish and Arab ground forces north of Raqqa have a contentious relationship, and the Islamic State may instead be counting on the likelihood that Arab civilians in Raqqa city would reject a predominantly Kurdish liberation force.”
In May 2015, I.S. seized Ramadi in Iraq and extended its forces further southwest in Syria by taking Palmyra and its ancient ruins. In Anbar, the Iraqi army with U.S. air support has failed to achieve decisive results to date.
Turkey has flown a few air strikes of its own against I.S. in Raqqa and elsewhere, but it’s exceedingly doubtful it will be enough to tip the balance. Ankara is adamantly opposed to any coordination with the Syrian Kurds since their primary fighting force, the People’s Protection Units, are affiliated with an offshoot party of the PKK which Turkey is also bombing.
Remember, the Kurdish militias are the only force on the ground in Syria that effectively works with the United States and has pushed back Islamic State. American efforts to establish an alternative Arab-Syrian proxy army has proven to be a calamitous failure.
Then there’s Russia’s intervention on the side of the Syrian government, which will further serve — regardless of whether or not it’s intended — to empower Islamic State.
Igor Sutyagin, a Russian strategic analyst quoted by The Guardian, said that the Kremlin’s forces are “backing [Syrian Pres. Bashar Al] Assad in the fight against groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra and Ahrar Al Sham, which are themselves opposed to ISIS. If Russian troops do eventually join combat, therefore, they would also – technically – be assisting ISIS.”
McFate of the Institute for the Study of War echoed this analysis. “If Russia were serious about defeating the Islamic State, it would have focused its air strikes on Palmyra, which would have degraded the group’s defensive flexibility in concert with U.S.-led operations elsewhere,” McFate wrote.
“But this is not Russia’s objective. Instead, there is a high risk that Russia will fracture the U.S.-led coalition and stoke regional escalation against the Iranian axis, outcomes that support the Islamic State’s long game in the region.”
“In the long run, Russian intervention will widen the space for anti-Western actors in the Middle East, strengthen the Iranian axis, and polarize the region in ways that the Islamic State will continue to exploit.”
More to the point, a majority of Russian air strikes have targeted anti-Assad rebel groups in close proximity to regime-held territory. In Aleppo province, the Russian strikes have in turn enabled I.S., in places, to advance closer to the province’s war-torn capital.
See the problem? Islamic State has survived — and expanded — by exploiting gaps in its enemies’ disorganized defenses during the past 22 months. There’s little evidence to suggest the situation will change for the better.
It may get a lot worse.