Map: Situation as of June 29th, 2016. The grey area represents the territories effectively under the control of the Islamic State (source).
A July 12th report in the Washington Post by Joby Warrick and Souad Mekhennet has caused a stir recently for suggesting that the Islamic State’s “caliphate” is on the ropes. Titled “Inside ISIS: Quietly Preparing for the Loss of the ‘Caliphate,” the story has received a lot of attention on cable news and has been widely (and in some cases, enthusiastically) shared online. Indeed, I have been asked to comment on the topic in an interview for a local television station on Saturday morning, but I assume the topics considered during the interview will now, unfortunately, expand to include discussion of the terrorist attack killing 84 people in Nice (and wounding over 200) that took place on July 14th. Yet here I want to focus on the claims of the Washington Post article and think through the issue a bit.
According to the WAPO report, the Islamic State is quietly preparing its followers for the eventual collapse of the caliphate it has established on a land mass between between Syria and Iraq over two years ago. The leaders of the Islamic State have publicly acknowledged their recent military losses in Iraq (e.g. the recent fall of Fallujah, for example, as well as the pending fall of Mosul for which the U.S. has recently deployed more troops), while acknowledging its other strongholds could fall as well. The group has reportedly gone as far as to tell people not to join them in Syria and Iraq any longer, and instead do damage in their home countries. The idea is that the Islamic State may, at some point, have to go underground and presumably use their massive online propaganda machine to continue to communicate with its supporters, who regularly carryout terrorist attacks on their behalf, around the world.
My initial thought is that this is too optimistic, at least in the way it is being presented in much of the media. There is no imminent collapse for the Islamic State in the near future, at least not at the current rate of speed of the military operations against them. While the Islamic State has been pushed back significantly in Iraq, over the course of recent months, it still controls land there and is much better sunk in to its important positions in parts of Syria. This includes the city of Raqqa that was captured in 2013 and made the Islamic State’s headquarters in 2014 (for which it continues to serve in the present).
Dislodging the Islamic State from its Syrian possessions will not likely happen anytime soon, but the efforts to take back territory from their control in Iraq have been productive and it is a good start. This is because the Islamic State’s claims to legitimacy, as a “caliphate,” are in part based on their possession of significant lands under their administration. So taking their land possessions away from them diminishes their legitimacy, somewhat, in the eyes of potential supporters as they would much rather be projecting an image of strength. To this end, Islamic State territories in Syria and Iraq have shrunk by 12% since the beginning of the year according to analysis by IHS, a defense research firm.
While the Islamic State’s reach in Iraq (in particular) has recently been reduced by the efforts of localized forces Iraqi supported by the U.S. and other coalition partners, it still controls a significant amount of land. At one point, the effective territorial control of lands by the Islamic State led some commentators to argue they controlled an area as large as Britain. Today those estimates have been reduced, as the new claim is that they possess lands that equal the size of Greece or Ireland. This is still a lot of territory, with an estimated population of up to eight million people under their control which they can tax (accounting for up to 33% of their revenue) and conscript as they see fit. Most importantly, they argue it gives legitimacy to their claims to having established a genuine caliphate which aids in foreign recruitment and the radicalization and mobilization of forces in other countries. So their continued possession of significant lands in Syria will continue to represent a problem for some time to come as it remains a boon to their propaganda efforts.
Part of the problem is that the Islamic State fighters are often embedded among the civilian populations they have conquered. Thus, unleashing the full force of the U.S. Air Force, for example, or a major ground invasion of Islamic State held territories, could result in massive civilian casualties that few western politicians seem willing to take the blame for, particularly when options for dealing with the aftermath of such an effort are so limited. Aside from the potential humanitarian crisis produced by such an attack, the U.S. and other western powers have no appetite for occupying the areas the Islamic State currently controls after dislodging them (particularly after decades of active U.S. involvement and conflict in the region, dating back to 1991), and localized forces from the surrounding region (e.g. the Jordanians, Saudis, Turks, etc…) seem to have little genuine interest in providing an occupying force either. Nobody wants the job.
Defeating the Islamic State without having a reliable occupying force to take their place would leave a vacuum that other rebel groups fighting in the Syrian Civil War might fill, with many of these groups having similar resumes to the Islamic State’s. Another major force fighting in Syria, for example, is al-Nusra, which represents al-Qaeda. So a scenario where the U.S. defeats and dislodges the Islamic State only to be replaced by al-Qaeda or an al-Qaeda type group, is not unthinkable. There is also the question of Iran’s future influence in the region, something of great concern to Sunni Muslims and responsible for much of the current jockeying we see among regional powers. There are, of course, more optimistic scenarios, involving friendlier forces or coalitions, but no certainty of them materializing. So until a respectable and capable occupying force emerges, to pick up the pieces after a military campaign to destroy the Islamic State in Syria, there is little enthusiasm for a major war effort to wipe them out.
But the problem of the Islamic State is no longer limited to just their territorial possessions in Syria and Iraq. While they have beaten back from their holdings in Iraq, the Islamic State has expanded beyond its borders in Syria and Iraq quite a bit over the last two years. Indeed, they now claim organized militant followers in at least 20 nations, with standing armies in many of them. Most notably, in Libya they claim up to 8000 fighters while in Nigeria (where Boko Haram has pledged their allegiance) they claim forces numbering up to 7000. Yet they also have smaller standing armies in Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, and elsewhere. In Egypt, for example, hundreds of government soldiers have been killed engaging Islamic State forces in the Sinai, as Islamic State inspired terrorism has also killed Egyptian state officials and civilians. Such efforts have even reached the Philippines where Abu Sayyaf militants have pledged themselves to the Islamic State. Recently beheading videos of westerners with Islamic State flags displayed in the background have emerged from the Philippines as the separatist group continues to engage in deadly conflict with government forces. In April of 2016, for example, the group slaughtered 18 troops in an ambush that represented the Philippine military’s greatest single day combat loss so far this year.
So taking away the Islamic State’s land holdings in Iraq and Syria would be a blow to their claim to a physical caliphate, which is important, but it also seems prepared to transition into a type of cyber caliphate, dispersed throughout the world more along the lines of al-Qaeda, only far more powerful and influential. We have seen their effectiveness in this regard already, with recent major terror attacks throughout the Muslim world as well as in Paris, Brussels, Orlando, Nice, and other places. Indeed, the Washington Post article cited above reports that the Islamic State is now taking advantage of these broader affiliate groups to disperse their leadership structure so it is not fully centered in Syria. They may well be planning for such a shift. If so, this is a significant cause for concern as over just the past month the Islamic State claims to have killed 5200 people through such means. They are not always this active abroad, but as an organization it would not surprise me if they have been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths over the last few years when considering both their efforts in Iraq and Syria as well as the worldwide terrorist activity they inspire. If they plan to increase such activity abroad, as many analysts have recently suggested, then in a worst case scenario their reign of terror could last years and at even higher death tolls than we have recently seen.
This must surely be a consideration for those weighing the costs of war to destroy the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Even with the risk to civilian populations caused by such a war, the potential for making the current humanitarian disaster in Syria worse, and the uncertain aftermath (who replaces the Islamic State?), allowing the Islamic State to operate as they currently do and continue their expansion may make for an even worse future overall. Then again, a full on confrontation with western powers, or “crusaders,” is something that up until now elements of the Islamic State have desired as a result of their beliefs in medieval apocalyptic prophecy that partly fuels their motivation. There is something distasteful about giving them the fight they want, as they believe such a battle could further galvanize “the faithful.” They may be right, as we have underestimated their appeal and strategy for much of the last two years, while they grew into a powerful worldwide organization that now leads a global jihadist network. Now they are a much larger problem to deal with, reaching far beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria, and will be a force to be dealt with (one way or another) for many years to come.
Addendum: Link to the above mentioned interview.
Addendum: Soon after I posted this essay, news of the attempted Turkish coup came out. Since then a number of articles have argued that the coup, regardless of if it is successful, could hamper efforts in the fight against the Islamic State.
A story by Reuters, for example, notes:
“Whatever the outcome, analysts said, the U.S. ally now faces a period of political and economic instability. That could divert the Turkish military and security services from stemming a recent series of attacks blamed on Islamic State, fighting a Kurdish insurrection and shutting off the flow of foreign militants across its border to and from Syria.
“From the U.S. perspective, the worst case scenario might be an ineffective coup that pitches Turkey into a prolonged power struggle,” said Blaize Misztal, the national security director at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Even a quickly executed coup which met little resistance would be destabilizing, but a partial or unsuccessful coup would lead to much more instability ahead.”…
Turkey is host to important U.S. and NATO military facilities. They include Incirlik Air Base, from which U.S. fighters and drones hit Islamic State in neighboring Syria, a CIA base from which the agency has been supporting moderate Syrian rebel forces, U.S. listening posts and an early warning radar for NATO’s European missile defense system. Turkey was scheduled to attend a meeting near Washington next week of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, although it was unclear if the attempted coup would affect that….
For his part, Erdogan has been angered by U.S. support for Syrian Kurds fighting Islamic State that he considers allies of the PKK, the rebel group fighting for greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds….
U.S. interests will suffer no matter the outcome of the coup attempt, said Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.”