The once fearsome Islamic State group, also known by the acronym ISIS, has fallen off the front pages. The big news from the Syrian battlefield is Russia’s air campaign to prop up the regime of President Bashar Assad by attacking various rebel groups. These groups include the Islamic State almost as an afterthought, and Russia’s aim is to construct durable air and naval facilities on the Mediterranean coast.
Targeting the other groups first, Moscow claims to have destroyed dozens of Islamic State manpower, storage, resupply, and training targets, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s credibility is zero. In any case, in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State’s ground war has stalled. Its recent successes comprise far-away suicide bombings that may be inspired by ISIS, rather than organized by it. Claims that the Islamic State is still gaining ground or even maintaining its strength call for skepticism. Here are some of the relevant questions:
1. New recruits: how many new recruits in fact arrive each month? Where are they on the battlefield? One thousand is the official Western estimate, but is this number likely? Some of these would be new foreign fighters, others are fighters switching from al-Qaeda to ISIS for better salaries and the associated prestige. Poignant media stories about susceptible young people caught on their way to Syria have become rare. The charisma of the caliphate story is weakening. Even if the recruits number so many, what is the military quality of newly arrived, untrained fighters? With the exception of Chechen fighters – and how many are there of these? – the new arrivals lack experience. They are apparently first put into support and guard positions, but a mere few weeks training with weapons means they are likely to get killed early on. Their major asset is bravery, not fighting skills.
2. Does ISIS really control vast swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory? This was questionable even when its army stormed out of northwest Syria last year, because most of the land is desert and mountains. Why (and how) would an irregular army estimated at a total 20,000-30,000 fighters waste manpower to control a vast swath of desert with a few villages in it? An adversary military force could probably have driven about this territory for an hour or two undisturbed. Current maps of effective ISIS control show a modest territory in a wine-glass configuration whose bulb is an area wedged between, to the east, an equal-size Kurdish-controlled area on the border with Turkey and, to the west, a small Damascus government-controlled territory around Aleppo, plus an edge of territory held by other rebels. ISIS controls the ancient city of Palmyra, but that sits in an isolated desert location in the center of the country. The glass stem is the vital area of Islamic State’s territory. From its informal capital in Raqqa heading south, it involves control of the northern bank of the Euphrates River (government forces are on the south bank) on the way toward Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baghdad, where the river abuts the Tigris. This early achievement was part of Islamic State’s strategic plan to control the water supply along a long area, ultimately to threaten Baghdad. Dams were closed, and the Euphrates at one point was diverted. Control of water may be Islamic State’s most threatening weapon.
3. How solid is the caliphate infrastructure, and how motivated are the fighters holding it? With few recent battleground successes, morale among the fighters and occupiers may be sinking. Media reports suggest large numbers of professionals – medical personnel, businesspeople- are fleeing ISIS territory among the massive outpouring of Syrian and Iraqi refugees heading toward Europe. ISIS propaganda suggests it is worried about a drain of medical personnel, teachers, and other professionals such as oilfield managers. Some of these leave behind families they hope to bring with them later if they reach Europe.
4. Do ISIS fighting methods still terrorize the enemy? The shock value of barbarism has been played out. Videos of decapitations and other atrocities are hardly seen in Western media. While Syrian government soldiers, Kurds, and Iranian-backed militias know what might happen if they’re captured, they are no longer terrified by it. Glamorized executions in other countries, such as happened on a Libyan beach, are rare. Islamic State fighters are now defeated with some frequency and are ousted from towns and strategic locations – most recently examples are the Baiji oil refinery, and a successful Kurdish/U.S. raid to rescue prisoners held in Hawija.
5. Within Islamic State’s leadership, how formidable is the military command structure after many senior officers have been killed? Is it still capable of organizing serious ground offensives? How cohesive is the religious ruling structure headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, sthe o-called Caliph Ibrahim? How much conflict is there within the religious leadership? Al-Baghdadi is rarely heard from in audio messages and has never appeared again in public since his July 2014 sermon in a Mosul mosque. Is he still a charismatic leader capable of motivating deeply loyalty among new and veteran jihadists? A stalled operation is a permanent risk to the authority of al-Baghdadi and the sharia council.
6. How important is it to have contiguous territory and coherent fighting forces trying to overthrow governments? ISIS is frustrated in Iraq and under attack from several sides in Syria. The group is not expanding its contiguous territory, and, for ideological reasons, if core Islamic State is not expanding, it is failing. How significant are the pledges of allegiance of faraway jihadist groups? In Afghanistan, ISIS seems to have attracted some Taliban fighters, but the organizations still fight each other as well as the Kabul regime supported by the United States. It remains to be seen whether holding some territory in Afghanistan or elsewhere abroad would enhance core Islamic State in Syria and Iraq because they would always be under attack somewhere, no doubt in several places. A fragmented international structure would be even more fragile than the contiguous Ottoman Empire caliphate. ISIS may in fact be declining, from a threat to regimes into a beleaguered core area whose successes consist of terrorist bombings abroad.
7. How long will ISIS avoid attacks to take back its urban conquests in places such as Mosul, Raqqa, and Ramadi? Raqqa has already fallen under air attack, even though it sits within the group’s core territory. Mosul and Ramadi are isolated, surrounded, even under siege, by Kurds, Baghdad, and Iranian proxy forces. Assaults to retake them are deterred mainly by the prospect of too much blood being spilled and large parts of the cities being left as ghost towns, as seen in Kobane. Lines of ISIS communication and resupply are threatened even if food and other supplies are let through to service the local population. ISIS fighters inside Mosul may number a thousand, and there are probably many fewer in Ramadi.
8. The last question concerns the Islamic State’s vaunted success using social media as propaganda. Certainly the West’s anti-jihadist social media campaign is basically futile, but Islamic State’s propaganda success may be declining, in spite of its output. A Wall Street Journal report on Oct. 7 (page A11) notes that since mid-September, 14 videos and 17 articles have appeared trying to discredit the significance of the refugee flow to Europe. One of them uses a fiction concocted by the Communist German Democratic Republic to explain the Berlin Wall. The Wall, it said, was not built by the GDR to keep East Germans from leaving. It was built by the West to prevent its own citizens from fleeing to the Communists. The Islamic State video tells viewers the refugees are in fact Syrians moving from Damascus-controlled territory to the caliphate. There is no doubt that some young foreigners still arrive to ISIS territory on a mission, and others across the world are impressed by the jihadist mentality – some enough to commit lone-wolf attacks. But in the medium term, sheer quantity of propaganda may not be enough to replenish the ranks.
There’s always the possibility that Islamic State’s leadership is hiding its strength, reorganizing, and will break out sometime soon in a new military campaign. But many signs point to weaknesses throughout the apparatus and ideology. My thought is that al-Baghdadi and his cohort are very worried.