ISIS maintains resilience through tactics, opportunism
Dubai - The Islamic State (ISIS) continues to amaze analysts and strategists with its ability to survive and prosper. The group has demonstrated tactical superiority on the battlefield, especially with employing blitzkrieg-style assaults that penetrate swiftly deep into enemy lines before the opponent is able to halt it or mount counter-attacks.
Just when everybody thought ISIS was on the run in parts of Syria and Iraq, the group mounted simultaneous attacks in northern Syria; the first against Kobani and the second against the provincial capital city of Al-Hasakah. Both are predominantly Kurdish cities.
Within hours, ISIS gunmen were deep into the two cities, taking local defenders by surprise and inflicting heavy casualties. Although Kurdish fighters managed a few days later to repulse the ISIS attack in Kobani, the terrorist group established a foothold in Al-Hasakah.
It appears that the objective of the attacks was to confuse the enemy and force it to disperse its forces, which allowed ISIS to make gains on the real target — Al-Hasakah, which holds more strategic importance due to oil fields in its vicinity.
The Al-Hasakah offensive overshadowed the few gains Kurdish fighters made in Raqqa province when they captured a few small towns. It seems that ISIS gave up less relevant areas for strategic territory in Al-Hasakah. It has recaptured most of the towns it had lost in Raqqa.
The extremist group kept up its offensive in the centre of the country by pushing deeper into Hama a few weeks after it established itself in Palmyra in nearby Homs province.
ISIS military commanders are proving to be strong tacticians with the ability to detect weaknesses within enemy lines and deciding when and where to strike. They have taken advantage of divisions within the ranks of their enemies, be it the Syrian regime or Syrian rebel groups or the Iraqi military and the Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS realises that it is not fighting a unified force but rather divided groups, each with its own agenda and objectives. Even the regional and international supporters of these anti-ISIS forces are divided and some are foes to one another (such as Saudi Arabia and Iran).
ISIS leaders have also proven to be cunningly opportunistic players willing to do deals behind the scene with adversaries to improve their standing on the ground. This has proved true in coordinated attacks with the Syrian regime on various occasions, especially on the Aleppo front where the group’s fighters received air cover from Syrian jet fighters during attacks on rebel positions.
Another example was ISIS’s successful attempts in taking advantage of frustrated Sunni tribes in Iraq that were sidelined by the government in Baghdad.
ISIS’s persistent attacks on Syrian Kurds seem to be serving Turkey, which opposes the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Syria and has voiced concerns about the growing strength of the Kurds on its borders.
Turkey is known by the intelligence community — regionally and internationally — to have back channels with ISIS that were beneficial in gaining the release of Turkish diplomats who were briefly held by the terrorist group after the capture of Mosul in June 2014.
Despite a US-led air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the group has shown remarkable resilience and continued ability to mount successful attacks and hold territory despite counterattacks as happened in Ramadi and Falluja in Iraq.
Through brilliant tactics, the terrorist group has weathered a year-long campaign by an international alliance providing indirect air support to Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting alongside Iraq and Syrian regular forces.
Its continued attacks on the Iraqi oil refinery in Beiji reflect a priority in controlling strategic assets that can provide it with income and resources. The group is estimated to be raising at least $2 million per month from selling oil and gas and levying taxes and fees on border crossings and utility services within its area of control, which extends over half of Syria and one-third of Iraq.
Keeping the sectarian divide and exasperating it in the region are believed to be in the forefront of the group’s objectives because its efforts to do so have gained it strong support from recruits around the world.
Combating the Shia-Persian axis has been a main plank of ISIS and helped gain it more than 20,000 recruits from countries as far away as Australia and Canada. This explains the group’s concentration on soft Shia targets such as mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to agitate the sectarian conflict.
However, the group’s actions are helping improve relations between Washington and its arch-foe Tehran by highlighting the role of Iran as a strong ally of the West in combating ISIS and similar Sunni radical groups.
It is also providing the United States with justification to re-establish a military presence in Iraq after ending it four years ago. About 3,450 US troops were deployed in Iraq over the past year.
While ISIS has proven to be of great danger to regional security and international peace, its presence is reinforcing regional and international policies it claims to oppose.