The Islamic State (IS) which stormed Iraq in 2014 with its takeover of major Iraqi and Syrian cities successfully exploited Sunni Arab grievances in Iraq and chaos in neighboring Syria. But the militant group is steadily losing ground in both these countries.
The so-called Caliphate is on the back foot. Some analysts are predicting that IS has more or less passed its peak of military power on the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields. If IS continues to lose territory at the same pace, some believe the year 2016 could well be its last to function as a pseudo state.
IS has lost about 45% of its territory in Syria and 20% in Iraq since its territorial control peaked in August 2014, according to estimates by US analysts. With every town and village lost, the group also loses income derived from local fines and taxes. Their oil industry has been bombed. This means its main source of funding and supply lines into Turkey are almost cut. The overall effect of these losses on the group’s funding, leadership, arms, propaganda communications and manpower is immense and it surely degrades the group’s fighting capabilities.
The CIA currently estimates that IS has 20,000 to 25,000 fighters on the ground. That is its lowest force level since the end of 2014. Islamic State’s ability to function as a military pseudo-state is threatened because it’s finding it hard to replenish its armed ranks. Various forces are squeezing the Caliphate at multiple points simultaneously. IS can’t resist everywhere.
Even the current affiliates of Islamic State in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula face stiff competition from rival groups and rising counter-terrorism pressure from various Mideast states. But forcing IS out of the cities and territories which it currently holds is unlikely to lead to its demise.
ISIS may drop its statehood guise and revert to its previous tactics as an insurgency. They will focus on sleeper cells, bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. Their efforts in this regard will be continuous. Even after losing its core territory, the group is capable of carrying out a bloody and deadly insurgency for years.
Their ability to do this lies in the nature of the organization. Islamic State is a hybrid organization. The disparate experiences of its members have been combined to transform an insurgent force into a formidable army. Its forces can shift from acting like a guerrilla militia to a conventional army, all while fighting on multiple fronts hundreds of miles away from their logistical bases. At its core are former Saddam-era army and intelligence officers, particularly from the Republican Guards. This cadre provides IS with good military strategy that is bolstered by the insurgency experience of fighters who hail from various parts of the world. This makes IS a very different type of terrorist organisation that can fight either as a conventional force or as an insurgency campaign.
Islamic State can also find other unstable places worldwide that can be used as bases. At present, Libya looks the most promising. It has just the kind of failed-state anarchy, the “savagery” that leaves room for jihadists to move in, forging alliances with local militants and disgruntled supporters of the overthrown regime. Just like Iraq.
Moreover, IS is the best-funded terrorist organization in history. It has deep pockets. The group’s financing is certainly more reminiscent of a state than organizations such as al-Qaeda that relied heavily on donations to fund their operations. So it would be erroneous to assume that IS will simply melt away after suffering military defeats in Syria and Iraq. IS can certainly engage in guerrilla warfare throughout the Middle East with its surviving fighters. It can also carry out direct or inspired suicide bombing operations through its global network.
Already, the group has stepped up its pace of suicide bombings in Baghdad, Damascus and elsewhere, in an apparent attempt to assert its presence even as it faces defeat on the ground.
Therefore, both a military and counterinsurgency strategy is required to completely defeat Islamic State. The core assumption of any counterinsurgency strategy is that the enemy has significant support in communities from which it recruits and gets support. The aim of an effective counterinsurgency strategy is to deny the enemy propaganda victories that can further fuel its recruitment and support base.
Unfortunately, ISIS is very good in carrying out a propaganda war that paints the regional conflict as a new crusade by the West in which they are defending Islam. We shouldn’t allow IS to brand itself as the icon of global jihadism, broadening its affiliate and allegiance-based networks. As such, a longer-term strategy needs to be developed.
This must include preventing further proliferation of the group in the Middle East and beyond. It’s critical for the approach to address ways to reduce the group’s regional appeal. Finally, the local divisions and regional sectarianism that fueled Islamic State’s rise should be dealt with so that IS cannot return to the places from where it was driven out.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency Views Around. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.
Copyright Manish Rai