ISIS faces defeat unless foes are too divided
BEIRUT - There is an assumption that the Islamic State (ISIS) is on the ropes and that, if the pressure being put on the group in Iraq and Syria is sustained, its self-proclaimed caliphate, intended to rule the world’s 1 billion Muslims, will collapse.
That may be true but retaking key cities, with their captive populations, and wiping out ISIS’s leadership, from its self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi down to mid-level commanders and administrators of the caliphate’s captive population, may not necessarily spell the end of ISIS.
It would, in all likelihood, trigger a withering campaign of terror, not just in the Middle East but around the world — from Nigeria to Libya, from Afghanistan to the Philippines where ISIS has established outposts over the last three years. Western Europe may become the target of larger attacks than the recent slaughters in Paris and Brussels.
“The West should expect that ISIS has developed a contingency strategy to authorise more attacks inside Europe even in the event that its would-be caliphate is collapsing in Iraq and Syria, and that even in its dying days ISIS’s proto-state will try to punish Western countries that hastened its end,” warned Nick Heras, a Middle East specialist with the Center for New American Security in Washington.
If the ISIS caliphate crumbles, observed Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to President Massoud Barzani of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, which has fought ISIS to a standstill in northern Iraq, “ISIS will transform from a terrorist state to a terrorist movement.
“It will be weakened… but it will not evaporate or be replaced by moderate Arab Sunni politicians.”
In the face of simultaneous offensives in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has responded with a blistering barrage of suicide bombings, including attacks in and around Baghdad that have killed a large number of civilians. These are intended to terrorise, demonstrate ISIS’s ability to strike wherever it wants and to force the Syrian and Iraqi regimes to withdraw forces from the front lines to defend their capitals.
The loss of Falluja, Mosul or Raqqa would hit ISIS hard but, like other terrorist groups, it could show resilience and regenerative capabilities in the face of major setbacks such as the loss of key leaders.
Falluja, 60km west of Baghdad, has been under ISIS control since January 2014 and before that was a centre of Sunni resistance against US forces. In 2004, US Marines fought two lengthy and bloody battles to control the city, the Americans’ heaviest fighting since Vietnam.
Thousands of people were killed but the Americans for all their firepower never truly crushed the al- Qaeda-led insurgency there.
US commanders and senior Obama administration officials have said that 22-month-long US-led air campaign has inflicted massive damage on ISIS with about 25,000 fighters killed and the group’s infrastructure pounded into rubble, its flow of foreign volunteers cut from an estimated 2,000 a month to 200 in recent months (later amended to 500) despite the protestations of intelligence officials that the jihadists are resilient, unpredictable and difficult to crush.
At least 15 ISIS leaders have been killed by US commandos or air strikes in recent months, indicating a vast improvement in US intelligence. This has been a severe blow. ISIS reportedly executed 38 people in a hunt for spies in its midst.
But, as Mike Flynn, until recently director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency and the former US special forces commander in Afghanistan and Iraq where he fought Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who created al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor, admitted to Der Spiegel in December 2015, systematic decapitation of such groups is highly overrated as a strategy.
“We used to say, ‘We’ll just keep killing the leaders and the next guy up is not going to be as good’,” he said. “That didn’t work… because Baghdadi is better than Zarqawi and Zarqawi was actually better than bin Laden.”
Still, there is no doubt that ISIS has been hard hit. Global security consultancy IHS-Jane’s estimates that the group has lost 40% of the territory it conquered in Syria and 25% in Iraq since the start of the year and that the population it ruled has shrunk from 9 million to 6 million in the last 15 months.
Analysts say that, for the first time, ISIS faces the prospect of losing much of the territory it has held since 2014.
The only factor that could give ISIS some respite is if the ungainly and fractious forces opposing them in Syria and Iraq fall apart amid sectarian and ethnic squabbling that could degenerate into outright Sunni-Shia war — and bolster ISIS’s claim to be the protector of the Sunnis.
Sectarian polarisation is getting worse in these already deeply divided countries and threatens to erupt as Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia struggle for regional domination.
But the lack of a unified strategy by the foreign powers caught up in this war could leave a political vacuum that ISIS can exploit to regenerate.
“There’s no real plan about what to do” after ISIS’s strongholds fall, lamented Erbil-based analyst Hiwa Osman. “Only the Sunni Arabs can really put an end to ISIS, and until they do it will never be finished.”