Understandably the San Bernadino terrorist attack has mesmerized many Americans, terrorized by Islamic State’s capacity to inspire or to command mass killings and bombings. It’s all too easy for people to be swept up in the fear that the Islamic State group is unstoppable; to believe that ISIS is “making war on the world,” as one typically over-dramatic CNN headline put it a week ago.
But a more sober and realistic view — one that imagines how the events of the now might look to future historians — provides a different picture. First of all, look at the Islamic State’s position in Syria and Iraq — the so-called caliphate as it exists today. It’s hardly conceivable that this fighting force — comprising a couple of tens of thousands of fighters, or maybe somewhat more — can win its war against the array of internal and outside military powers that are now bent on destroying it. This is all the more so after the successful attacks in Paris, San Bernadino, and elsewhere: The result of the Islamic State’s terrorism abroad will be to increase the determination of its enemies to go after the group. All the conflicting interests and strategies of the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, the Assad regime, and others will tend to diminish in light of what is now the overriding purpose: the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq must be eradicated. No outside government will now be willing to accept a tacit armistice with Islamic State.No one is afraid the group could possibly win in Syria and Iraq, but ISIS’s very existence increases the terrorism threat across the globe, including those governments for which it is still for now a second priority. For governments from Washington to Moscow, and from Paris to Istanbul, allowing the Islamic State to survive has become an unacceptable risk.
The most likely next stage — I understand this is a controversial forecast — will be that Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will be dismantled by military defeats and ousted from the Middle East. In effect, the Islamic State as a coherent structure will be shoved off the Eurasian continent entirely. Its leadership is already preparing for this by setting up new headquarters in Libya in the city of Sirte (Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown). A move to North Africa will not constitute some dramatic expansion of the Islamic State’s governance — the addition of a Mediterranean beachhead to bolster its governance in Syria and Iraq. It will be the result of a strategic defeat for ISIS.
The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is going down. It has already lost significant territory. The Kurds and other ground forces have clawed back 25-30% percent of what ISIS once controlled — and much of that territory is empty desert anyway. An accurate map of its extent shows that Islamic State is not a contiguous territory the size of Indiana or Oregon, but rather a mass of tentacles that are fragile and can be cut up. (The Kurdish ouster of ISIS from Sinjar cut the main road link between Raqqa and Mosul. Raqqa is now under direct attack, and Mosul has been surrounded for weeks.) ISIS has lost control of several cities — Kobani, Tikrit, Sinjar — and an attack on Ramadi is getting under way. Only about 300 ISIS fighters defended Sinjar at the end. Whether they escaped, were allowed to run away, or were killed, is not clear. Perhaps 500 to 1,000 fighters control Ramadi, and they are surrounded by a force of 10,000 that has entered the city with success. Effective ISIS control on the border between Syria and Turkey has been drastically shrunk, and it now amounts to a narrow band of territory wedged between Kurds and the Assad regime’s control of Aleppo and its suburbs. Ankara has now committed to completely eliminating ISIS from that border.
As outside governments attack with greater determination, the Islamic State’s footprint and military capacity will diminish still more; smaller defeats will lead to larger defeats. In other words, however many lives were lost in Paris and San Bernadino, the Islamic State is through in Syria and Iraq. How long will it take? Of course I don’t know. But it’s urgent.
But make no mistake: I’m not saying that ISIS itself will be totally defeated. Even if the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is destroyed, its capacity for terrorism will surely metastasize into a more extensive, more potent, harder-to-hit transnational terrorist network. Unfortunately for all of us, there will likely be more San Bernadinos. (Just as there may be more mass shootings in the homeland with completely different motivations.) More countries around the world will be hit as well. Larger numbers of deluded, impassioned young Muslims will rally to the cause.
Yet even then, ISIS will not be making war on the world. Its terrorist network, even expanded, will be playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game against intensified counter-terrorism operations. The new base in Sirte should be put under constant attack and pre-empted if possible. So let’s fight the urge to panic. The purpose of terrorism is to terrify. Courage is the capacity to resist being terrified.