Fidaa Itani

ISIS is on the move

Four reasons ISIS will remain resilient despite recent defections and a recent rallying of forces against them

A skull on the ground a day after a mass grave containing the remains of members of the Yazidi community killed by ISIS was discovered by Kurdish forces near the Iraqi village of Sinuni (AFP/Safin Hamed)

Information suggesting that the Islamic State (ISIS) is withdrawing from areas in northern and northeast Syria has spread via Syrian opposition media recently. This information also suggests that ISIS fighters are heading to Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and other parts of eastern Syria.


Some people may think the sporadic defections the Islamic State is seeing, desertion by some of its members or a few hundred air strikes are foretokens of its collapse; or that that the Islamic State’s move eastwards from northern and northeast Syria is the last chapter in the story of the bloodiest militant group the Middle East has ever seen. Sadly, people who believe this are way off the mark; the Salafist jihadist group’s leadership can still be stubborn, fight, and use the slogan “the Islamic State will remain and expand.”


There can be no doubt that the beginning of this year saw an important crossroads in ISIS’s life: many countries — in particular those participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, but also Turkey and others — made it their goal to wear down the group and keep it busy in the battle for Kobani while striking it from the air at several other locations. At the same time, successful (and partially-successful) ground operations were launched against the group in Iraq. But despite this rallying of forces against the world’s most extreme form of Salafist Islam, there are at least four points that suggest ISIS will continue to exist.


First, the Syrian regime has continued to exist: it is the main reason the country has been turned into a safe haven for any Tom, Dick or Harry with a suicidal project who wants to play or share a role in the area’s conflicts.


The second point is the continued existence of a crippling political vacuum in the multiple Syrian oppositions, both regionally and internationally. In addition to this, Bashar al-Assad has insisted on only engaging in nominal negotiations with the opposition and Iran has insisted on prioritizing the continued existence of the Syrian regime — albeit as a calcified shell of an authority that has no qualms about killing its people whenever its influence recedes.


The third point is ISIS’s ability to learn from its experiences and develop militarily. It deduced that the war of attrition it fell into in Kobani wasn’t going anywhere, so it changed course. It knows the coming war will not be as easy as the past war, so it has made preparations and reshaped its forces. The group will not be affected by the defection of a few dozen fighters in Syria or Iraq: it is a large conglomeration that unites dozens of different components — a few changes to its body will not cause any damage. Neither will its situation be changed by the shift from one area to another. In fact, leaving northern Syria and redeploying in the east will have the opposite effect.


From ISIS’s point of view, redeployment is a new beginning. Although this belief may be at odds with the way fighting groups are supposed to think, we must bear in mind that ISIS gives priority to its “muhajirun” commanders and fighters (those who come from abroad) over those classified as ansar (the original inhabitants of the land.) Also, one must consider the events of early 2014: although the group was expelled from Idleb and most areas north and west of Aleppo, relocation gave it additional traction when the time came to pounce in Iraq during the crisis in Nouri al-Maliki’s government. The group focused its power in eastern parts of Syria and then started a campaign in both countries, and the effects are still being felt today.


The fourth point is the international community’s need for the group to exist — many of the main international powers involved in the erupting Arab region need this kind of chaos. They need a murky picture of the future that could afflict the region if the current regimes fall or fragile balances are upset, first affecting the Middle East, then Western states. International need opens loopholes that allow for tolerant policies and security practices, suspect bank transfers and illegal oil deals. This not only allows ISIS to exist, it also allows the group to realize its aspirations of building an Islamic state and expanding into areas currently in a state of civil war. It has spread its ideology supported by pressing international needs to achieve gains at specific locations as the region goes through drastic changes. This has taken place amid a complete lack of any imminent stability in the region, where the prospects of agreement on social contracts and of conflicting social components reaching political compromises are bleak.


All this cannot possibly herald an imminent end to the extremist Salafist jihadist group, even if campaigns are organized from Iraq, Jordan or anywhere else. Movement of the group from one area to another will amount to no more than repositioning, which in turn will contribute to the redistribution of its forces in preparation for coming battles.


For now, ISIS will lose much of its equipment and many of its fighters and leaders. However, a quick look at the group’s history and the environment that gave birth to it show that it used to be smaller and weaker, and has lost more in the past only to return and spread like never before. Put simply, the cures being provided fail to examine the root of the disease in a region living in a state of weightlessness.


Fidaa Itani tweets @Fidaaitani


This article has been translated from the Arabic by Ullin Hope. 

A skull on the ground a day after a mass grave containing the remains of members of the Yazidi community killed by ISIS was discovered by Kurdish forces near the Iraqi village of Sinuni (AFP/Safin Hamed)

From ISIS’s point of view, redeployment is a new beginning."