Accessibility links

Islamic State Is Losing Ground, But Is It Even More Dangerous Than Ever?

  • James Miller

Iraqi soldiers patrol streets near the city of Fallujah last month during an operation to regain territory from the extremist Islamic State group.

Iraqi soldiers patrol streets near the city of Fallujah last month during an operation to regain territory from the extremist Islamic State group.

If there was any illusion that the fight against the extremist group Islamic State (IS) was nearing its final chapters, that naive notion should have been shattered in the last few weeks.

In the past month alone, IS has suffered major defeats, won major victories, and conducted some of its most impactful and successful terrorist attacks yet, proving that the fight against this group is at least as complicated as the battle to subdue its predecessors in Iraq.

When Al-Qaeda In Iraq (AQI) was formed following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it had several advantages over the United States.

For starters, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started as fairly traditional combat missions against fighting forces (the Taliban and the Iraqi Army, respectively) that were concerned with holding territory, and quickly scattered once this territory was captured by the overwhelming firepower of the U.S.-led coalition. Both wars soon devolved into asymmetrical counterinsurgencies which are much harder to fight.

AQI, however, had another trick up its sleeve -- the blending of asymmetrical and more traditional warfare. Coalition military commanders quickly learned that it was not enough to capture territory, but that territory had to be held, preferably by local forces which had to be convinced of the worthiness of the cause.

But whereas AQI was successful in briefly holding neighborhoods and even cities like Fallujah while conducting terrorist attacks in other regions of Iraq, IS has taken this blending of war plans to the next level, simultaneously occupying vast areas of land while conducting attacks across the entire Middle East and far beyond while inspiring attacks across the planet. Islamic State is at once a military, a terrorist group, a guerrilla warfare organization, and an idea, and all four of those aspects are proving difficult to fight.

In recent months there has been a lot of speculation that IS the military organization would be the easiest part of the terrorist group to beat. To be sure, IS has lost a series of battles in both Iraq and Syria. According to a newly-published report by experts at IHS, a data analysis company, Islamic State lost 14 percent of its territory in 2015 and another 12 percent in the first six months of this year.

As a result of those defeats, the extremist group is already changing its narrative by focusing more on conducting terrorist attacks abroad than in using propaganda to praise its more traditional military victories. This is undoubtedly a sign of weakness, but a wounded animal is clearly a very dangerous one.

Furthermore, IS still has the advantage of being able to use the power it derives from holding territory to project terrorism and fear beyond its borders. As a consequence of that dynamic, the faster it is defeated militarily, the better. The recapturing of more than a quarter of IS's physical strongholds in 18 months is certainly an important first step in ultimately defeating the terrorist group. But does this mean that it will take six years to militarily defeat IS?

Lagging Momentum

There are also indications that the battle is not going as well as many expected. Fallujah has been recaptured from IS after many months of siege and more than a month of nearly-constant combat. But Fallujah was one of IS's most vulnerable positions, originally captured by the militants primarily for its symbolic power. The Atlantic Council's Faysal Itani told RFE/RL that the city likely fell so quickly because Islamic State is overstretched in the region. Battles for places like Mosul and, ultimately, Raqqa, IS's "capital" in Syria, could take much longer.

Elsewhere, in Syria, there have been setbacks for the anti-IS coalition. IS forces launched attacks earlier in the week against the Syrian Defense Force (SDF), a primarily Kurdish group that is key to U.S. efforts to defeat the terrorists. Those efforts may have been reversed.

An Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, U.S. Army Colonel Christopher Garver, was optimistic in his assessment on July 6, in which he stated that the SDF was resisting IS in Manbij and that other vetted opposition forces were making gains further west, near the hotly contested "Mara Line."

The SDF now claims that Islamic State is fleeing Manbij. Still, especially near Mara, Western-backed rebel forces are striking back against an IS offensive launched this spring rather than advancing deeper into the heart of IS's territory. Momentum is clearly lagging.

Worse yet, another key part of the U.S. strategy to defeat IS in Syria has suffered a major setback. In the last week of June, we reported on Russian air strikes against the New Syrian Army (NSA), a group dedicated to fighting IS which is backed by the United States and Britain.

Consisting largely of former Syrian special forces units that deserted the Assad regime, the NSA is important on several levels.

First, the NSA is made up of predominantly Sunni fighters -- an important symbolic balance to predominantly Kurdish and Shi'ite forces backed by the United States elsewhere.

Second, NSA's position south of IS's strongholds opens a new front against the terror group. Within a week of the Russian airstrikes, the NSA launched their own offensive against Islamic State in Al-Bukamal, the back door between IS's territory in Syria and Iraq. Despite initial success, the NSA was routed and retreated across 150 miles of open desert.

Sectarian Dynamic

It's unclear whether the Russian air strikes weakened the group enough to enable its defeat, but the United States also decided to reroute air support for the NSA to Iraq, to target IS in Fallujah. On July 7, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that the United States had "missed an opportunity" in not providing air support for the NSA offensive.

Even in military victory there are setbacks, however. As the Associated Press points out, the mission to retake Fallujah was led by powerful Iraqi Shi'ite militias, and their victory has already taken on a troublesome sectarian dynamic. Unfortunately, this is exactly what experts predicted would happen.

Islamic State will be defeated militarily. It has to be. The world does not have a choice. Even though progress is being made, the slow pace of victory and concerns about worsening regional sectarian tensions are indications that much work remains to be done.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

Subscribe

Show comments

XS
SM
MD
LG