Two Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers inspect an underground ISIS tunnel in a village east of Mosul. Photo by Ayub Nuri
As the Islamic State (ISIS) suffers continuous territorial losses in both Iraq and Syria many are beginning to anticipate life after the group loses all of its stolen territory.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi predicted the Islamic State will be defeated after losing Mosul, reasoning that it was in that city back in June 2014 that ISIS declared itself a state.
The spokesman for ISIS, Abu Mohamad al-Adnani, seemed to anticipate the group losing territory soon when, in a May audio recording, he vowed that ISIS would not be finished, even if their leader is killed and they lose their primary strongholds, Mosul and Raqqa.
Losing their main strongholds in Iraq and Syria is unlikely to destroy the group for good; instead it is likely to revert it to a stateless militant group who will look for an opportunity to rebound against its many enemies.
Presently the group is continuing to lose territory. The IHS Conflict Monitor recently reported that ISIS lost another 12% of its total territory in the first six months of 2016. The monitor also reported that the Islamic State lost 12,800 square kilometers of territory reducing its total territorial mass to 78,000 square kilometers. At present the group still clings onto a sizeable 68,300 square kilometers of territory, but continuing to suffer territorial setbacks on multiple fronts.
“ISIS greatly overreached in 2014. There was simply no way it was going to hold all the territory it took. It was just a matter of time before it started getting rolled back,” Iraq-analyst Joel Wing, who runs the popular Musings on Iraq blog, told Rudaw English.
“As a result it has been shifting its tactics for months now. This consists of a return to mass casualty bombings highlighted by the recent Karrada, Baghdad bombing, but also bombings in southern Iraq during the start of 2016 hitting many cities that had not been touched, sometimes for as long as two years,” Wing added.
Wing also points out to attacks and re-infiltrations ISIS carry out on cities and towns they have already lost as an example of what might come after they lose all of their territory.
“For example, ISIS is able to carry out operations in the Tikrit district and Baiji. It is constantly moving back and forth in the towns of Anbar,” Wing pointed out.
“Overall, my guess is that once ISIS is expelled from all the cities of Iraq it will try to rebuild in the rural areas where it has more freedom of movement because the security forces will likely be sparse there. It will use carrots and sticks to gain back support of locals and tribes. I don't think it will try to take any cities again, but it will build back its networks in urban areas. Its networks in Baghdad are already fully active and have never been degraded since the U.S. left in 2011,” Wing went on to predict.
Also, Wing explained, Iraq and the Kurdistan Region have had limited success when it comes to counter-insurgency tactics.
“The [Iraqi Army’s Special Forces] Golden Division and the KRG Special Forces are good at raids and arresting and killing high-profile ISIS leaders, but that's not enough to really degrade ISIS. The US coalition can try to shift its focus from conventional military warfare to counterinsurgency, but I don't think that will change the culture of the Iraqi forces. The Iraqi army was only really good at those types of operations when partnered with U.S. units and that's not going to happen. The Iraqi police were more erratic and full of militias. The Kurds aren't able to do a lot of this work in Arab regions because they're not accepted,” he explained.
“Overall Iraq will look like Iraq pre-Mosul 2014,” Wing concluded.
The Washington Institutes' Michael Knights remarked back in June 2014, after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic State, that ISIS had gone from being “the world's richest terrorist organization to the world's poorest state.”
Knights believes the group will focus more on local insurgency and strategic terrorism in Iraq after it loses territory, adding that there are already some precedents to this kind of strategy:
“It was famously said by one futurologist that the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed yet. This is true for post Mosul ISIS. We are already seeing how ISIS acts locally when it loses key areas in Diyala, Salah al-Din and Anbar provinces. They are turning to local insurgency (in Diyala, against occupying Shiite militia Badr forces) and strategic terrorism against Baghdad. ISIS itself is envisaging a period akin to the post-2010 period when Al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated – as Adnani's statements illustrate. So we can already see the future and Diyala show us how bad it could get.”
In Syria ISIS may live to die another day after being forced from its Raqqa stronghold and other parts of northeast and east Syria.
“ISIS will probably remain a military factor in Syria and Iraq even after losing its territory. Many fighters might migrate to other Salafist militias in the region, such as Nusra, but the national idea that ISIS has mapped out of a Sunni Caliphate remains powerful. It has many sympathizers,” Syria-expert Professor Joshua Landis, of the University of Oklahoma, told Rudaw English.
Focusing on ISIS in Syria Landis points out that the coalition and their Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) “will have a very difficult task de-radicalizing the population and eastern and northern Syria, largely because it has no apparent solution to the core political or economic problems in the region.”
“Killing and scattering the present ISIS rulers is a good first step,” Landis added, “but no alternative plan for the region's future has been put forward or articulated. This is because no plan exists. The US and its coalition partners have tried to produce Arab allies, a New Syrian Army, and various partners that could take control of the region, but these efforts have ended in failure. The Syrian National Coalition, which is staffed by many sympathetic activists from a Western point of view, seems to have little military or political authority over the people or the region.”
“The SDF is led by Kurds who want autonomy from the Arabs of the region, not to rule over them. Western planners frequently discuss the possibility of mobilizing the tribes of Eastern Syria, but little headway has been made in this direction. In fact, the recent New Syrian Army advance into Al-Bukamal was supposed to link up with tribal elements in the region, which were supposedly prepared to join the Western Coalition against ISIS. It never happened,” Landis explained.
He concluded that: “Until the Arab residents of Eastern Syria have a government that they believe in and some hope for stability and economic welfare, the Islamic State is likely to find loyal adherents in the region.”
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.