Haid Haid

Will ISIS survive the current onslaught?

Though the group recently lost several key locations, ISIS will not be fully destroyed if the coalition against it continues to focus solely on military gains

Iraqi forces deploy on October 17, 2016 in the area of Al-Shurah, some 45 km south of Mosul, as they advance towards the city to retake it from ISIS. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

There is a general assumption that ISIS, facing an array of military coalitions, will eventually be pushed back and lose so much territory that the result is essentially the destruction of the group. The significant recent increase in territories lost along several ISIS fronts is lending credence to this assertion. After the fall of Ramadi and then Fallujah in Iraq, the fight over Mosul has begun. In Syria, the group has also recently lost several key locations such as Manbij, Jarablus and the symbolic town of Dabiq while the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa is increasingly under siege. These territorial losses constitute a major blow to ISIS’s military and financial capabilities. However, in the absence of post-ISIS plans for these areas, which would deal with the root causes that allowed the group to flourish in the first place, the adaptable strategies displayed by the movement will likely ensure its survival to fight another day.


ISIS officials have been proactively preparing their supporters for the group’s territorial losses while also assuring them of that a future decisive victory will one day come. In May, ISIS spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani released a voice recording before his death stressing that ISIS will still triumph even if it loses all the cities under its control: “Were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq [in 2006–2010] and were in the desert without any city or land? And would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa, or even take all the cities and we were to return to our initial condition? Certainly not! True defeat is the loss of willpower and the desire to fight.”


Similarly, an editorial titled, “The Crusaders’ Illusions in the Age of the Caliphate,” was published in the June edition of Al-Naba, the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter, also advanced the message that even if the group loses all its territorial assets, it would continue to survive. “The crusaders and their apostate clients are under the illusion that, by expanding the scope of their military campaign. . . they will be able to eliminate all of the Islamic State’s provinces at once, such that it will be completely wiped out and no trace of it will be left… Therefore, the polytheists everywhere ought to be sure that the caliphate will remain, God willing, and that they will not be able to eliminate it by destroying one of its cities or besieging another of them, or by killing a soldier or an emir.”


Defeating ISIS militarily will not be enough to stop the group from rebounding stronger than before. Following the US alliance with Iraqi Sunni tribes against ISIS in 2006, the group, known at the time as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, lost many of its top leaders and territories and was forced underground. Nonetheless, from 2013 onward, the group reconstituted itself and began conquering Fallujah, Mosul, Tikrit and other areas, expanding beyond their territories of control during the US occupation. Similarly, the group was widely defeated by local rebel groups in northern Syria in 2014 and again quickly rebounded stronger than before. In both cases, ISIS was able to take advantage of chaos, along with local divisions and grievances, in order to once again regain power.


The myriad coalitions currently battling ISIS are pursuing a negligent strategy by focusing solely on military gains and ignoring the root causes which allowed the group to flourish in the first place. The unintended consequences resulting from such misplanning are increased tensions among locals and risks of secondary conflicts that could be exploited by ISIS in an attempt to survive and regain power. In Syria, the increased cooperation between the US and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led coalition, has empowered the latter to establish an autonomous Kurdish region. This has led to increased tensions between Kurds and Arabs the area. It also triggered Turkey, which considers the Kurdish component of the SDF as a security threat and terrorists linked to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), to partner with rebel groups and intervene military in Syria to check the growing power of the Kurds. These tensions and competition over territory manifested in military confrontations between the Turkish-led groups and the SDF around northern Syria. The frequency and intensity of clashes also look set to rise as the two groups pursue similar objectives and come into further contact along shared front lines.


Moreover, the political, economic, social and cultural issues that helped give rise to ISIS remain largely unaddressed, which provide the group with an opportunity to continue to use them as a recruiting tool, hoping once again to restore its power at a later stage. Iraq continues to suffer the consequences of corruption, sectarianism, dysfunctional governance, a fragmented security environment, and intense rivalries between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, among Shiite actors, militias and Iraqi security forces, and between Shiites and Sunnis in general. Likewise, the Syrian regime and its allies continue to commit atrocities and war crimes against civilians in the absence of any real hope to end the conflict in the near future. These conditions, which helped pave the way for the rise of ISIS in the first place in Syria and Iraq, have only been exacerbated.


ISIS’s well established online recruiting strategy remains a strong weapon that the group can use to survive virtually and launch attacks outside areas directly under their control. The group was able to employ its online network to recruit, plan and coordinate attacks with sympathizers in Paris, Brussels and other cities around the world. The inner workings of this network still remain largely unknown, which will likely allow it to survive long after ISIS’s territorial defeat. “Indeed, the passion of belonging to the ISIS cyber community might even intensify in the period after the fall of territorial control. Perhaps nothing brings together a community as the sense of being under siege and needing to band together for strength,” wrote Mark Juergensmeyer, the founding director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.


The ongoing fight against ISIS will only bring positive results if the various military coalitions adopt a clear, comprehensive and participatory strategy that addresses the causes of the group’s rise. This could be done by allowing locals to identify and seek assistance in addressing the deep-rooted problems that ISIS exploited on its path to power in the first place. Without such a strategy, it’s unlikely that ISIS can be defeated without the risk of creating an even stronger monster down the road.


Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist, researcher, and Chatham House Associate Fellow who focuses on security policy, conflict studies, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22

Iraqi forces deploy on October 17, 2016 in the area of Al-Shurah, some 45 km south of Mosul, as they advance towards the city to retake it from ISIS. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

The ongoing fight against ISIS will only bring positive results if the various military coalitions adopt a clear, comprehensive and participatory strategy that addresses the causes of the group’s rise.