The Islamic State (IS) captured Raqqa city, its first provincial capital, in January 2014. Six months later, IS declared its caliphate and Raqqa became its de facto capital. Last Tuesday, the partner force of the US-led anti-IS Coalition, the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), entered the city centre in Raqqa. A deal had evacuated most of the remaining jihadists over the prior weekend, though a determined core remained and still held about 10 per cent of the city. The caliphate is crumbling and the Coalition says IS has 6,500 fighters left. According to the Coalition, this puts IS “on the verge of a devastating defeat”. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe this is true. To the contrary, IS is more powerful at this point, in theatre, even after the military reverses inflicted on it by the Coalition, than in the period after the “defeat” of 2008, and the outlook is more favourable now to IS. Moreover, IS now has an international reach, physically and ideologically, it did not previously possess.
The IS movement has been remarkably institutionally and ideologically constant. It therefore helps to review, briefly, the history of the West’s engagement with IS. During the years of war with the organisation in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, IS repeatedly tried to govern territory—in Falluja (2004), al-Qaim (2005), Ramadi (2006), Baquba (2007), while simultaneously IS was expanding its shadow authority in Mosul. The Coalition, in a pattern that it has repeated, focused on pushing IS out of urban areas—and defined this as a victory that enabled a rapid Western withdrawal. The Coalition’s lack of vision for an end-state and the will to enforce it was exploited by IS, which thinks in cyclical terms of a long, attritional struggle.
The Coalition Got its Metrics Wrong
The Coalition metrics—loss of territory, fewer foreign recruits, dwindling revenue, eliminated leaders—did not capture the spreading influence of an organisation whose bureaucratic structures had matured and remained intact. IS was able to transition up and down the phases of its revolutionary warfare, from a state-like entity into a terror-insurgency and back again, differing from front to front, as needed.
“The evidence from the group’s own internal documents overwhelmingly shows that IS is well-organised, highly committed, and, importantly for the current situation, has developed contingency plans for this situation [when it loses territory], which we’ve already begun to see implemented in liberated cities in Iraq where IS attacks continue to take place,” Patrick Johnston, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and the co-author of an extraordinary study of IS’s internal structure based on its own documents, explained.
By the end of 2008, IS was driven from overt control of all territory and by 2010 IS’s leadership was decimated. Yet, signs that IS was not as badly beaten as believed were visible even in 2008, and by 2011, the organisation was expanding into Syria.
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