Victory or defeat in war is often as much psychological as it is military. Military forces fight to impose their wills, and at a certain moment, even if the weapons are not yet silent, one side or the other loses heart. Its will to resist breaks, and defeat becomes a matter of time. Arguably, we are getting to that point in the war against the so-called Islamic State group.
Classical military theory broadly emphasizes that the battlefield advantage lies with the defenders, because defense requires fewer soldiers and weapons to hold positions than the attacker needs in order to overrun them. But when ISIS swept out of northern Syria two years ago, they staged a blitzkrieg offensive, replete with sophisticated strategy and tactics, including unprecedented barbaric treatment of soldiers and civilians to win through terror as well as by weapons. The ISIS onslaught was in effect a months-long rolling surprise attack on disorganized, demoralized, poorly equipped, internally divided adversaries. Syria and Iraq had been battlefields in failed-state territories even before ISIS arrived on the scene. ISIS just took advantage of the chaos.
ISIS thus had the initial advantage. But once its initial rampage was stopped, beginning with Kobani in February 2015, the battlefield turned into a stalemate. Effective counter-attacks began on Islamic State positions late last year. Armed with conventional weapons and no air force, ISIS was soon put on the defensive. Battlefield momentum changed. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the Islamic State’s military was bound to lose, because even with the advantages of defense (including the barbaric use of human shields), it was totally outnumbered and outgunned.
ISIS turned out to be much overrated as a military force capable of sustained warfare. Its resilience lay always more in the fervor, commitment, and reckless courage of its fighters than in its numbers and military capacity. From the battle for Kobani onward, the Islamic State has been regularly beaten in ground engagements. There were still a few victories (for example, taking Palmyra) but by the end of 2015 one could see that the Islamic State group was going down.
Anti-ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq are now experiencing few setbacks as they push ISIS back. The biggest victories so far have been at Tikrit and the Baiji oil refineries in April 2015; Sinjar in November; Ramadi in December; and Palmyra two weeks ago, which was the Islamic State’s first big defeat in Syria. Scores of villages have been retaken, and initial operations have begun to dislodge ISIS from its positions on the Euphrates River. Anti-ISIS forces are better organized and armed than before, with the increasing morale that victory brings. Destruction of the Islamic State as a geopolitical entity is no longer just possible or probable, it looks like a certainty. The only unknown is how long it will take and how much destruction will be wrought.
In this unrelenting series of defeats, the will to resist of the central ISIS leadership and its militants — the fighters but also the Islamic State’s bureaucratic officials in occupied cities and towns — is at stake. Fighters are running away rather than insisting on martyrdom. Ramadi was the first instance: Fighters fled the city back to Mosul where they were rounded up and burned alive. It’s not clear yet whether some of the Palmyra defenders ran away. In any case they put up little resistance. Two of the five top ISIS government leaders — its effective ministers of war and of finance — have recently been killed by American forces. It’s logical that at some point ISIS, like any army, will lose heart — the climactic moment when the will to resist shatters.
The creation of the Islamic State was always a temporary affront to the logic of military force in geopolitics. It was implausible that it could durably hold off the big regional powers and the United States once these determined it had to go. Now the fundamentals are reasserting themselves. Military force matters.
But what about ISIS’s morph into essentially a global terrorist network? Isn’t ISIS stronger than ever? What about Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, and the many other devastating attacks of the past few months? ISIS, while losing in Syria and Iraq, seems to be a greater threat to Europe and the United States than ever. There is some truth to this, but once again we need a sober, realistic view of what’s going on.
The new ISIS, without its Islamic State caliphate in Syria and Iraq, will be a different phenomenon requiring a different intellectual conception. For two years ISIS was primarily a geopolitical conquest, the Islamic State, at the center of an international terrorist network. The raison d’être of the enterprise, what drew fighters from around the world, was building the caliphate. Now this jihadist dream is disappearing. The new ISIS will be the inverse, a loose network of international terrorist operations without a core, run by die-hard romantic jihadists and brutal warlords. Over time, Islamic State’s dismantling will likely produce a gradual demoralization in global jihadist hearts and minds. The rank-and-file will to some extent disintegrate, with some militants joining al-Qaeda or other splinter groups, and others going back to civilian life. It will be interesting to see how former jihadist war criminals try to earn a living.
What does this mean for the United States and Europe?
Looked at objectively, the number of jihadist networks at any given moment is not incalculable, it is finite. Some are more or less organized than others, and the total number can rise or fall. But the networks as such could be counted if the information were available.
This means that sufficient, determined counter-terrorist forces can reduce the total number at any given moment and over time. Counter-terrorism works. High numbers of terrorist plots have been disrupted in the United States and in Europe. The Brussels catastrophe should eventually result in an upgrading of Belgium’s woeful counter-terrorism capacities, including their connection with EU neighbors. (Paradoxically, terrorist attacks may stimulate greater European integration.)
No counter-terrorist effort will be entirely successful, but the number and success of terrorist networks can be reduced and the destruction limited. ISIS is not eternal, nor is al-Qaeda, or jihadist terrorism in general. A war that takes a generation to win is not an unwinnable war.