By Ronald Tiersky
Once-fearsome ISIS/Islamic State is largely off the front pages these days. The main news from the Syrian battlefield is Russia’s air campaign to prop up the Assad regime by attacking various rebel groups including, as a second thought, Islamic State, and to construct durable air and naval facilities on the Mediterranean coast. Targeting the other groups first, Moscow claims to have destroyed dozens of Islamic State manpower, storage, resupply and training targets but Vladimir Putin’s credibility is zero. In any case, in Syria/Iraq, Islamic State’s ground war has stalled. Its recent successes are far-away suicide bombings that may be more inspired by ISIS than organized by it. Claims that Islamic State is still gaining ground or even maintaining its strength call for skepticism. Here are some of the relevant questions:
- New recruits: how many new recruits in fact arrive each month? Where are they on the battlefield? One thousand is the official Western estimate but is this number likely? Some of these would be new foreign fighters, others are fighters switching from Al Qaeda to ISIS for salaries and prestige. Poignant media stories about susceptible young people caught on their way to Syria have become rare. The charisma of the caliphate story is weakening. And even if there are so many recruits, what’s the military quality of newly-arrived untrained fighters? With the exception of Chechen fighters (and how many are there of these?) the new arrivals lack experience. They’re apparently first put into support and guard positions but a mere few weeks training with weapons means they are likely to get killed early on. Their major asset is bravery, not fighting skills.
- Does ISIS really control vast swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory? This was questionable even when its army stormed out of northwest Syria last year because most of the land is mountainous or desert. Why (and how) would an irregular army estimated at total 20-30,000 fighters waste manpower to control a vast swath of desert with a few villages on it? An adversary military force could probably have driven around there for an hour or two undisturbed. Current maps of effective ISIS control show a modest territory in a wine-glass configuration whose bulb is an area wedged between, to the east, an equal size Kurdish-controlled area on the border with Turkey and, to the west, a small Damascus government-controlled territory around Aleppo, plus an edge of other rebel-held territory. ISIS control of the ancient city of Palmyra is in fact an isolated location in the center of the country. The glass stem is the vital area of Islamic State’s territory. From its informal capital in Raqqa heading south it involves control of the northern bank of the Euphrates River (government forces are on the south bank) on the way toward Ramadi, Falluja and Baghdad where it abuts the Tigris. This early achievement was part of Islamic State’s strategic plan to control the water supply along a long area, ultimately to threaten Baghdad. Dams were closed and the Euphrates at one point was diverted. Control of water may be Islamic State’s most threatening weapon. Its occupied cities require defense, they aren’t offense.
- How solid is the caliphate infrastructure and how motivated are the fighters holding it? With few recent battleground successes, morale among the fighters and occupiers may be sinking. Media reports suggest large numbers of professionals — medical personnel, business — are fleeing ISIS territory among the massive outpouring of Syrian and Iraqi refugees heading toward Europe. ISIS propaganda suggest it is worried about a drain of medical personnel, teachers and other professionals such as oil-field managers. Some of these leave behind families they hope to bring later if they reach Europe.
- Do ISIS fighting methods still terrorize the enemy? The shock value of barbarism has been played out. Videos of decapitations and other atrocities are hardly seen in Western media and while Syrian government soldiers, Kurds and Iranian-backed militias know what might happen if they’re captured they’re no longer terrified by it. Glamorized executions in other countries such as happened on a Libyan beach are rare. Islamic State fighters are now defeated with some frequency and ousted from towns and strategic locations (most recently the Baiji oil refinery and a successful Kurdish/U.S. raid to rescue prisoners held in Hawija).
- Within Islamic State’s leadership: how formidable is the military command structure after many senior officers have been killed? Is it still capable of organizing serious ground offensives? How cohesive is the religious ruling structure headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, so-called Caliph Ibrahim? How much conflict is there within the religious leadership? Baghdadi is rarely heard from in audio messages and has never appeared again in public after his July 2014 sermon in a Mosul mosque. Is he still a charismatic leader capable of motivating deeply loyalty among new and veteran jihadists? A stalled operation is a permanent risk to Baghdadi’s and the sharia council’s authority.
- How important is it to have contiguous territory and coherent fighting forces trying to overthrow governments? ISIS is stalled in Iraq and under attack from several sides in Syria. It’s not expanding its contiguous territory and if core Islamic State is not expanding it is failing. How significant are pledges of allegiance of far-away jihadist groups (Libya, Khorason, the new groupuscule set up in Bahrain, unreliable Boko Haram)? In Afghanistan, ISIS seems to have attracted some Taliban fighters but the organizations still fight each other as well as the Kabul regime supported by the U.S. It remains to be seen if holding some territory in Afghanistan or elsewhere would enhance the core Islamic State in Syria/Iraq. A transnational Islamist caliphate would have to cohere. A confederation or even a federal structure wouldn’t work because it would always be under attack somewhere. A weak international structure would be even more fragile than the Ottoman Empire. ISIS may in fact be declining from a threat to regimes into a beleaguered core area whose successes are terrorist bombings abroad.
- How long will ISIS avoid attacks to take back its urban conquests such as Mosul, Raqqa and Ramadi? Raqqa has already been under air attack even though it’s within the core territory. Mosul and Ramadi are isolated, surrounded, even under siege, by Kurds, Baghdad and Iranian proxy forces. Assaults to retake them are deterred mainly by the prospect of too much blood being spilled and large parts of the cities being left as ghost towns like Kobane. Lines of ISIS communication and resupply are threatened even if food and other supplies are let through to service the local population. ISIS fighters inside Mosul may number a thousand, probably many fewer in Ramadi.
- The last question concerns Islamic State’s vaunted success in social media propaganda. Certainly the West’s anti-jihadist social media campaign is basically futile but Islamic State’s propaganda success may be declining in spite of its output. AWall Street Journal report of October 7 (page A11) notes that since mid-September fourteen videos and 17 articles appeared trying to discredit the significance of the refugee flow to Europe. One of them uses a fiction concocted by the Communist German Democratic Republic to explain the Berlin Wall. The Wall, it said, was not built by the GDR to keep East Germans from leaving. It was built by the West to prevent its own citizens from fleeing to the Communists. The Islamic State video tells viewers the refugees are in fact Syrians moving from Damascus-controlled territory to the caliphate. There is no doubt that some young foreigners still arrive in ISIS territory on a mission and others internationally are impressed by the jihadist mentality, some enough to commit lone-wolf attacks. But in the medium term sheer quantity of propaganda may not be enough to replenish the ranks.
There’s always the possibility that Islamic State’s leadership is hiding its strength, reorganizing and will break out sometime soon in a new military campaign. But many signs point to weaknesses throughout the apparatus and ideology. My thought is that Baghdadi and his cohort are very worried.