News Analysis |
In mid-July 2016, the Iraqi government forces declared victory over the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in the hard-fought battle of Mosul. The beleaguered group was completely annihilated in the historic city.
The group’s de-facto capital, Raqqa, is also under siege by the US backed, Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the city is expected to fall soon. The loss of major urban centers will deprive IS of manpower and financial resources and it’ll be pushed back into the largely uninhabited Iraqi and Syrian deserts.
However, whether the string of defeats really bring the demise of this Caliphate which was declared in 2014 by Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi?
How Islamic State came to the forefront?
The Islamic State previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) came to the forefront at the end of 2013 when it captured large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. The capture of Raqqa and Mosul provided IS with unprecedented power and influence unmatched by any terrorist group in history. The blitzkrieg launched by IS and the resulting advances shocked the entire world.
The ranks of IS are depleting fast due to the war of attrition with its foes. In order to reverse this Caliphate, its ideology has to be countered
The proclamation of a worldwide “Caliphate” in June 2014 by Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, led to various Islamist extremist groups across Asia and Africa, pledging allegiance to IS. In addition to controlling territory in Syria and Iraq, IS also control areas in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and now the Philippines with territorial claims in other states as well.
Factors behind IS successes
The combination of conventional and guerrilla tactics by Islamic State enabled it to first weaken the targets and then capture them by launching large-scale assaults. The seizure of major urban centers by IS exhibits how successfully it made use of terror attacks to soften the targets and damage the morale of enemy and then striking with various units simultaneously in a conventional style warfare to capture them.
Many militants fighting under Islamic State banner previously fought for Al-Qaeda in Iraq but its real strength comes from the former officers and men of Saddam’s army who are now part of this terrorist group. These officers and men have converted this group into an effective fighting machine with proper hierarchy and chain of command.
An absolute majority of Muslims rejected IS claims and only a few disgruntled Muslims from across the world actually believed in this concept and joined IS
Unlike other terrorist organizations, IS is not solely dependent upon a single military leader, rather it has various commanders working in different areas with great autonomy to take independent decisions. In addition to that, local leaders leading a few dozen to a few hundred men deployed throughout Syria and Iraq provide flexibility to this group enabling it to deploy and concentrate forces where needed while policing areas of lesser importance.
IS was able to capture American made weapons after the fall of Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi which it still uses on the battlefield. This provided enormous firepower to the group and enabled it to outgun its opponents.
Islamic State in faraway lands
Islamic State has control over areas in eastern Afghanistan especially in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces where it surprisingly clashes not only with Afghan National Army backed by Coalition forces, but also Afghan Taliban whom the IS group call the apostates. IS calls the areas in Afghanistan as Khorasan province.
The final victory will come at a heavy cost and will be slow. But the defeats faced by the group in Syria and Iraq does not mean the end of its Caliphate
IS also has a presence in Sinai desert in Egypt where Russian Civil airliner was downed by a bomb hidden inside the plane and whose responsibility the group accepted. IS also has launched various attacks against Egyptian army in Sinai and made its presence felt by bombings in Cairo and other Egyptian cities.
Libya after the Arab Spring is in turmoil and the power vacuum created as a result of the civil war is successfully exploited by IS which subdued its rivals and captured territory. Boko Haram, a terrorist group active in North Africa also pledged allegiance with Islamic State providing it further access and influence on the African continent. Yemen also has witnessed the rise of IS.
The capture of Marawi in the Philippines by militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant including the Maute and Abu Sayyaf Salafi jihadist groups indicate that the group now has influence in Far East Asia as well.
Who is fighting Islamic State and why?
The attacks in France and Belgium exhibited Islamic State’s ability to target areas far away from its sphere of influence. The threats posed by IS forced USA, Russia, France, UK, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Germany to intervene in Syria and Iraq and target IS.
The United States air campaign against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq began in August 2014 while the Russian air campaign began a year later in September 2015.
The Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and the Philippines have made their presence felt but have so far failed to match the group’s advances and power in Syria and Iraq
The French Air Force conducted airstrikes in Syria after the November 2015 attacks in Paris in which at least 135 civilians were brutally gunned down by IS fighters. Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Jordan have launched air strikes of their own while Germany is busy arming and training Kurdish fighters in both the countries who are at loggerheads with IS.
The involvement of these regional and extra-regional powers to curb the advances made by IS in Syria and Iraq have internationalized the conflict. The Islamic State is the best example of how non-traditional security threats have overshadowed the traditional ones and also the magnitude of the threat posed by non-state actors to the international security.
Islamic State losing initiative on the battlefield
The speed of IS advances in Iraq and Syria have indeed surprised many and the power and influence the group enjoys are unprecedented. But the momentum which Islamic State once possessed is gone.
The US bombing campaign and the Iranian support to Iraqi administration and Shiite militias have enabled government forces to recapture Ramadi, Tikrit, Fallujah, and Mosul. The fortunes on the Iraqi battlefield have surely reversed in the favor of the Iraqi military.
The involvement of these regional and extra-regional powers to curb the advances made by IS in Syria and Iraq have internationalized the conflict
The situation for IS in Syria is not encouraging as well. The Syrian Army emboldened by Russian airstrikes recaptured the historic city of Palmyra and has now entered Deir – ez-Zor province for the first time in five years. The Kurdish YPG forces in Syria routed IS completely from areas around Raqqa and have entered the city where it is embroiled in a house to house fight with IS militants. In comparison to 2015, when the group was at its peak, it now controls less the half of the territory it had under its control.
The Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and the Philippines have made their presence felt but have so far failed to match the group’s advances and power in Syria and Iraq. The areas in these countries serve as “Strategic Depth” for the group.
As the pressure mounts on IS in Syria and Iraq, it will seek to delegate some level of power to its international affiliates, while actively encouraging retaliatory attacks against high-profile targets in other countries. The group might remain entrenched in these countries a little longer than in Syria and Iraq, but once the international community shifts its attention towards these areas, the group will find it difficult to survive.
Unlike other terrorist groups, IS seeks to take over territory and then govern it with brutal force. The turmoil in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya have allowed this group to do so, but once these states seek stability, the IS will slowly be enveloped and will lose its gains.
The attacks in France and Belgium exhibited Islamic State’s ability to target areas far away from its sphere of influence
The efforts of USA, Russia, and other powers to contain and destroy IS have started to come to effect. The beleaguered Iraqi and Syrian forces in addition to the Kurdish fighters have turned the tide of the war against Islamic State. Recent gains made against IS are not an indication of the final collapse of the group. The final victory will come at a heavy cost and will be slow. But the defeats faced by the group in Syria and Iraq does not mean the end of its Caliphate.
The Caliphate was never real, it was an ideology which attracted thousands of fighters from across the globe to join the ranks of IS. The propagators of the idea of IS Caliphate reminded Muslims of the glorious days of the righteous Caliphs where the Islamic Empire stretched from the low lands of Persia to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and even beyond. An absolute majority of Muslims rejected these claims and only a few disgruntled youth from across the world actually believed in this concept.
The ranks of IS are depleting fast due to the war of attrition. In order to reverse this Caliphate, its ideology has to be countered. Otherwise, it’ll emerge somewhere else by exploiting the miseries of the diselluded populace. IS Caliphate might operate only in the areas under its control, but it’s ideology still persist in lands under foreign occupation which make them vulnerable to its corrosive doctrine.