A version of this article was published at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Under the Black Flag“
The extremist group now known as Islamic State (IS) first claimed statehood, with clear pretentions to a new caliphate, in 2006—and eight years later made it explicit.
“Now the dream has become a reality,” Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) said in his speech on June 29, 2014, declaring that the territory IS held in Syria and Iraq constituted the rebirth of the caliphate. “The State will remain.”
Two years later, this looks like an unsafe proposition.
After IS openly seized control of territory in northern and central Iraq, adding it to their Syrian domains, in the summer of 2014, it controlled an area roughly the size of Great Britain. Since then, IS has lost about half the territory it held in Iraq and about one-fifth in Syria—and a further one-tenth overall in the first half of this year. Operation Inherent Resolve managed to hold IS out of Kobani in late 2014 but then in early 2015 suffered a setback: After IS was driven out of Tikrit, the extremist group took over Ramadi and Palmyra. Since then, though, progress against IS has been steady.
In June 2015, IS lost Tel Abyad, due north of Raqqa on the border between Syria and Turkey, and with it one of its main access points to the outside world. Iraq’s Sinjar Province was finally cleared in November 2015. Large parts of Ramadi were recaptured from the militants in December 2015. IS lost Shadadi (east of Raqqa) in February 2016, Palmyra (central Syria) was retaken in March, and Fallujah (west of Baghdad) in June. In northern Syria, IS-held Manbij is completely surrounded and its fall will precipitate the collapse of IS’s position in Aleppo Province, closing off its access to Turkey. And in Iraq, the removal of IS from its last important urban center in Saladin Province, Shirqat—a development that will further open the road to Mosul—is only a matter of time, Meanwhile, IS has come under tremendous pressure in Sirte, its de facto capital in Libya.
What reason, then, to call the military campaign against IS anything but a success?
One reason is that IS has actually been making (modest) gains even as the net result is a loss of territory. While IS is losing its access to the Turkish border via Manbij and soon al-Bab, it is—albeit in a very fluid situation —gaining territory around Azaz, another border town. In southern Syria, IS has pulled off the remarkable feat of growing an organic wing of the organization, partly playing off the U.S.-led coalition’s foolish decision to stop the rebels in the area fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and to redirect them against the Jihadi-Salafists. This left the rebels vulnerable to charges of being hirelings of foreigners who have betrayed the revolution, and opened the space for the jihadis to position themselves as the banner-carriers of the anti-Assad struggle. And in the mixed Iraqi province of Diyala, from which IS was expelled in early 2015, IS has shown greater activity recently—not coincidentally after a spate of atrocities by the radically sectarian Shi’ite militias controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
More broadly, IS has adapted to its new environment—with lethal consequences far outside Iraq and Syria. Falaha effectively conceded in a major speech in May that the demise of IS’s statelet is approaching, and this was echoed in an editorial in IS newsletter al-Naba. The organization is therefore switching back to insurgent and terrorist tactics. The car bombings in the shopping district in Karrada, Baghdad, on July 3—which killed 300 people, the second-worst atrocity IS has conducted on Iraqi soil since it arrived in 2002—foreshadowed this. So did attacks in Tartus City and Jableh on May 23. IS has nearly doubled the rate at which it employs suicide bombers in the last six months,averaging about three per day.
The reversion to insurgency underlines the question of how IS views territorial control. Doubtless IS ultimately intends to create an Islamist imperium, but it is not operating as if it believes now is the moment it can forge a durable state.
A study released as IS fell back in Tikrit noted that, while IS “holds out until the last possible moment” in the cities, it “seems more focused on actively defending the rural zones in which urban areas are located. In many cases, the urban center may be the part of the defended zone allocated the smallest proportion of available Islamic State forces.”
“The jihadists fight as if they were pirates, with the desert being their sea,”Nibras Kazimi has written. “They treat the cities and towns they have captured as ports of call, for booty and resupply. When challenged by superior forces attempting to retake these ports, the jihadists dissolve away into the desert, leaving small and determined bands of fighters to deflect and bleed out the invading force.”
IS’s strategic thinking is deeply shaped by the work of Mohammad Hasan Khalil al-Hakim (Abu Bakr Naji), the author of the infamous Management Of Savagery, and Mustafa Nasar (Abu Musab al-Suri), whom they personally revile. Both stress exhausting the jihadists’ foes.
“Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and retreated in the desert without any city or land?” Falaha asked in May. “And would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or even take all the cities and we were to return to our initial condition? Certainly not!” IS sees this war as cyclical and attritional, and it sees its enemies’ will fading. Last time around, there were tens of thousands of Western soldiers on the ground. This time there are only special forces and air strikes. Next time there will be even less, IS predicts.
It is not to deny that IS is heading into a period of hardship: Its leadership has been dented, the flow of foreign volunteers has been restricted, and less territory means fewer people to be taxed. It is to say that, given IS’s strategic vision and proven capacity to adjust to conditions in pursuit of it, territorial control per se is not only not the defining metric of the progress of the war, but the focus on it at the expense of all else is dangerous.
The caliphate is the “driving” force behind IS’s recruitment, the U.S. representative to the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, recently said. “So we have to shrink the core”. Less than a week later, CIA Director John Brennan said, “Despite all our progress against [IS] on the battlefield … our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach.” The answer to the discrepancy in the two statement lies in the nature of IS’s territorial losses.
In Syria, IS’s losses are largely to ground forces dominated by the local branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and in Iraq to IRGC-run militias—both of which are regarded as illegitimate by the local populations in areas from which IS has been displaced. The PKK clearly intends to use its U.S.-backed campaign in Aleppo to link its cantons in the east of the country to Efrin, encompassing much territory where the inhabitants do not wish to be part of a Kurdish nationalist project. The support to the IRGC-controlled militias is especially toxic given the recent record of the United States and especially in tandem with U.S. overtures to Russia, solidifying the perception in the region that the United States has sided with the Iranian axis against the Sunnis. In the medium term, this has created the political space for IS to return to the cities, but this narrative of IS as the vanguard against a global anti-Sunni conspiracy enables it in the short-term to call on its foreign sympathizers to “punish” the countries engaged against it.
The foreign terrorism track is not, as some have argued, reactive to the territorial losses; it has always been integral to the state-building project and this increased activity is partly a sign of maturity. “Don’t hear about us, hear from us,” was IS’s mantra. The group developed a mania for pre-emptively infiltrating its near-abroad—and areas well beyond—in response to its having been infiltrated and pulled apart during the Surge-and-Sahwa period. The return to insurgency has, however, certainly had an impact on the timing of these strikes by IS.
Put simply, on the current trajectory the coalition is allowing IS to “convert territorial losses into legitimacy.” Unless IS is replaced by an accepted local force, the “dream” that Falaha spoke of will find a larger and larger audience as the least-bad alternative—ensuring IS’s territorial collapse is merely a prelude to another cycle of violence.
Correction: post initially said the al-Naba editorial was also written by Taha Falaha