ISIS on Ropes, but What Comes Next?

Iraqi security forces on patrol as they attempt to take back several towns from ISIS. Anbar, Iraq, June 18, 2016. (Haydar Hadi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The Islamic State (ISIS) appears to be in rapid decline. The group has lost large tracts of territory across the Middle East and North Africa and its key strongholds are facing imminent collapse. Its Sirte base in Libya is surrounded; Iraqi forces have retaken Ramadi, entered Fallujah, and are amassing near Mosul; and its hold on northern Syria appears to be slipping in the face of a concerted push by a United States and Kurd-backed military coalition from the north, as well as Russian-supported assaults from the south. The ability of ISIS to launch conventional armed action is lessening, as is its ability to hold and govern territory. Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s June 2014 declaration of a worldwide caliphate now seems a distant memory.

The decline of ISIS may have been inevitable given the number of opponents arrayed against it, but at times during 2014 and early 2015 it appeared that conventional forces, at least in Syria and Iraq, lacked the technical ability, motivation, and resources to slow or even push back the group’s highly motivated and fast moving battalions. The slow introduction of foreign fighters into conflict zones in support, logistics, and intelligence capacities proved, however, to be a boon to local state forces, particularly in Syria. From 2015, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its Lebanon-based proxy force Hezbollah proved decisive in halting the ISIS charge, as did Russia joining the campaign in September 2015. In Iraq, Iranian and US military assistance combined with thousands of Shiite militiamen from central and southern Iraq and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to stop the ISIS momentum, and began to reverse it from late 2015.

With an overwhelming manpower, resource, air, and technological disadvantage, ISIS is likely to lose many if not all of its major urban strongholds in the coming months. Nonetheless, the forces allied against it should guard against triumphalism or complacency. Based on local precedents and the group’s own history, ISIS seems likely to retain its regional and global influence for many years to come. Between 2005 and 2010, ISIS, then known simply as the Islamic State of Iraq, was degraded by attacks by Sunni tribal forces and the US military in Iraq, but was rebuilt and launched several well-planned and executed year-long campaigns in the run-up to its blitzkrieg-like return in 2014.

ISIS’s strength is built upon the perseverance and appeal of its ideology. This critical bulwark against its enemies is key to its continued success, as US President Barack Obama has pointed out on a number of occasions, claiming that “Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they’re defeated by better ideas.” The group’s particular interpretation of Islam justifies extreme forms of violence in its bid to recreate the caliphate of early Islam. This idea has appealed to thousands across the region and world, particularly the young, impoverished, and disenfranchised. ISIS has also thrived in areas where Sunni Muslim grievances are particularly acute. In Iraq, for example, where it has achieved its greatest success, the Sunni population is generally disenchanted with the central government, views Shiite Iran’s influence over the regime as largely negative and feels politically disempowered. The Iraqi government, which is itself wracked with infighting among various major Shiite political groups, has done little to provide greater regional autonomy, a key demand of Sunnis in the country. A similar situation exists in Syria, where the Alawite/Shiite-dominated regime remains a symbol of oppression for the Sunni majority population. ISIS has manipulated Sunni discontent to its advantage to raise political support, financing and, most importantly, recruitment.

While the focus still remains on the threat ISIS poses as it controls territory, its defeat would also, paradoxically, increase risks to states and the probability of conflict. ISIS maintains the support of thousands of fighters. Many of these will be eliminated in the coming months, but most are likely to return to their home countries or may simply go to ground, as they did prior to the US withdrawal from Iraq, and continue to agitate, seeking to conduct high profile and mass casualty attacks against rivals in an attempt to sow discord and create conditions for a future return. Even in areas abroad where its operational presence is low, ISIS will gain propaganda value from actions committed in its name. Recent mass casualty shootings by self-radicalized militants who had pledged allegiance to the group in the US, most recently in Orlando, clearly underline this.

ISIS’s agitation will also continue to increase the risk of conflict between rival states in the Middle East. The group’s defeat of conventional state forces in 2014 allowed Kurdish groups, including the Iraqi Peshmerga and Syrian-based People’s Protection Units, to increase control of territory in northern Iraq and Syria, much to the dismay of Damascus and Baghdad. Turkey has also looked on with unease as Kurds in neighboring states have gained in power, fearing impacts on its own Kurdish population in the southeast of the country. Fighters linked to this community, including the Kurdistan Workers Party, continue to agitate for regional autonomy or a separate state.

Once the immediate ISIS threat is removed, states will likely seek to regain lost ground, particularly in areas where a newly established Kurdish presence lies at a strategic crossroads or atop large reserves of oil, such as in Iraq’s Kirkuk. Iran too, faces a low-level Kurdish insurgency in its restive northwestern region from the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan and Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran. However, with a close alliance with some groups in northern Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran may move to leverage these forces against its geopolitical rivals, particularly Turkey, rather than confront Kurd interests head-on outside its territory.

ISIS, or whatever guise it adopts in the future, will seek to exacerbate tensions between opposition groups and, as it has done successfully in Iraq in stoking sectarian tensions through violent attacks, seek to pull state and regional rivals into confrontation. The group will need to be eradicated on the battlefield and its ideological relevance attacked and degraded by both local and international actors if its long term threat is too be diminished.