The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, as an organized military force in Iraq and Syria, is losing — even losing badly. This does not mean the end of ISIS, and we may see organized (as in Libya and Afghanistan) and unorganized (as in Paris and San Bernardino) bands carrying the ISIS label and banner for some time yet.
But these will be a mere echo (and perhaps even a mockery) of the force that carried out the shocking seizure of terrain in Iraq, threatening even Baghdad, a year and a half ago. However, the end of ISIS does not mean the end of Islamic extremism, and we should expect to see a resurgence of al Qaeda and its affiliates, as its splinter rival begins its death spiral.
Simply put, despite its quite impressive debut on the international stage, ISIS is out of its league. By trying to bring about the “caliphate” as a tangible entity, it has given its opponents, both local and international, a fixed target to strike.
The territory it controls in Iraq and Syria is now being attacked from the southeast by the Iraqi Army and Hashd al Shabi popular mobilization units (militia units of varying loyalites, mostly Shia Arab), from the northeast by the KDPand PUK Peshmerga (militias of the two ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan) forces, from the northwest by the Syrian YPG (People’s Protection Units) Kurdish forces, and from the southwest — at least nominally — by the Syrian regime and its Iranian/Russian allies.
Further, all the Iraqi forces (save the Hashd) are being supported by U.S. airpower, the Syrian forces by Russian airpower, and the YPG forces by both. In Iraq, two major cities have been reclaimed from ISIS (Tikrit and Ramadi), in addition to a number of significant towns. In December, the Iraqi defense minister stated that ISIS control of Iraqi territory was down from 40% at its height to only 17% then. While no cities have yet been reclaimed on the Syrian side of the border, ISIS continues to lose territory, with the coalition in January claiming about a 20% reduction. ISIS’ enemies are far closer to their “capital” of Raqqa then they were six months ago.
So long as ISIS (or its predecessors, the Islamic State in Iraq and al Qaeda in Iraq) remained in the shadows as a terrorist group, and stuck to its core competencies of assassination and suicide bombs, it was very difficult to find and root out, subject only to intelligence-driven raids by the commandos of the Joint Special Operations Command (Delta Force and SEAL Team 6, mostly). But ISIS’ strategy of creating a political entity on the ground has also made it vulnerable to both airpower and conventional armies, while–as events of the last 24 hours show–it is still subject to JSOC kill/capture operations. So while the implementation of the U.S. strategy has been scandalously slow, it is now clearly demonstrating its effectiveness.
So long as ISIS (or its predecessors, the Islamic State in Iraq and al Qaeda in Iraq) remained in the shadows as a terrorist group, and stuck to its core competencies of assassination and car bombs, it was very difficult to find and root out. But ISIS’ strategy of creating a political entity on the ground has made it vulnerable to both airpower and conventional armies. And while the implementation of the U.S. strategy has been scandalously slow, it is now clearly demonstrating its effectiveness.
Iraqi Army forces are moving to Mosul, already nearly surrounded on the northern side by Kurdish forces, while the Hashd are clearing the more rural areas west of Samarra/Tikrit and south of Mosul. The liberation of Mosul is no longer in doubt.
An optimistic timeline would have the operation occurring this summer, a pessimistic timeline next spring. But its eventual outcome is as close to certainty as exists. When tens of thousands of troops, supported by U.S. airpower, mass against a few thousand defenders, it is clear how that story ends, militarily.
And we are already seeing ISIS react to this eventuality. Late last month, we saw ISIS return to its terrorist roots and launch suicide bombs into the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad. In so doing, ISIS is demonstrating its weakness and regressing from a military force back to a terrorist one.
ISIS has overreached, and in so doing, has demonstrated that the longer-term strategy of its parent and rival, al Qaeda, is the more prudent one. While there will no doubt be true believers who stay with the organization, what will be the mass appeal of a group that seized terrain, but then couldn’t hold it? Yes, the ISIS affiliates in Libya and Afghanistan are doing quite well, operating as satellites of ISIS central. Any steps that can be taken at reasonable cost to defeat these affiliates should be. But what will be their raison d’etre when there is no longer a center around which to orbit?
The defeat of ISIS will by no means mean the death of violent Salafist extremism, and we should expect the bulk of ISIS’ survivors to defect to al Qaeda or other Salafist groups, rather than renounce the violent movement in its entirety.
There will be a natural temptation to declare victory when ISIS no longer controls terrain — and this will be a significant milestone, denying funds to the larger movement and liberating captured persons from ISIS’ control, violence and indoctrination. But the larger violent Salafist movement will be largely unfazed, and perhaps in some ways strengthened by the disappearance of ISIS.
And until the world is prepared to address the root causes of violent Salafism’s appeal — the Wahhabi/Salafist ideology of hate, the authoritarian nature of most Arab states that denies nonviolent outlets, the lack of economic prospects, all magnified by the coming youth bulge — we should expect another version, though perhaps very different in style, of ISIS to emerge from the aftermath.
Douglas A. Ollivant, a senior fellow at New America, served as director for Iraq at the National Security Council during the Bush and Obama administrations. He is managing partner of Mantid International LLC, a consulting firm that has business interests in the south of Iraq, including security, defense and aerospace clients. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.