With the complex web of influences that saturate the conflict in Iraq and Syria, it is easy to lose sight of a broader view. While ISIS’s advertisement and promotional innovation is frequently discussed, the astonishingly expansive swath of territory, people, and infrastructure ISIS held at the height of its power is often forgotten. Once having a population of five to six million people, a complex government and school system, as well as over 200,000 militants prepared to die for the cause, ISIS’s power was undeniable and ferociously uncompromising. This has, however, begun to change. After being driven out of the Syrian city of Palmyra for the second time, and most recently losing main roads and bridges out of the city of Mosul to the encroaching Iraqi army, ISIS may be losing its status as a regional power. This has not been without bloodshed and civilian terror, and although the organisation’s defeat would be propitious, its absence may quicken, not solve, impending conflict. ISIS’s decline is a slow burning fuse – the carnage it leaves behind may only be compounded by the carnage its defeat may spark.
ISIS began its galvanising campaign when, after a conflictual splintering from al Qaeda and rebranding via social media, its self-appointed leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed control of the ‘Caliphate’ of the Islamic State from eastern Syria to western Iraq. With control over Turkish border gateways like Manbij and Jarabulus and a presence from the town of al-Bab in the Aleppo hinterland to Mosul in northern Iraq, ISIS in 2014 was a force to be reckoned with. The unrecognised Salafi jihadist proto-state is run by a military government filled with former Iraqi intelligence officers, with a cabinet and province ministers that run everything from education and health to environmental policy. They have fully operational hospitals with maternity wards, and civil service offices that issue official ISIS birth certificates. They run a vaccination campaign as well as several schools and court systems. Strict and mediaeval interpretation of Sharia law is prevalent in their justice system, but they also handle things like traffic violations and rental disputes. They maintained, at their height, a proficient and capable military force. Its leaders ‘augmented traditional military skill with terrorist techniques refined through years of fighting American troops, while also having deep local knowledge and contacts … ISIS [was] in effect a hybrid of terrorists and an army.’ Led by former Saddam Hussein generals and graduates of prestigious military academies, ISIS also operated with a formidable budget and military resource. Not only did they have access to an estimated $2.38 billion in cash and assets, but use of weaponry such as tanks, vehicle mounted rocket launchers, anti-air stinger missiles, Howitzer artillery, MiG Fighter Jets and, more recently, weaponized drones. Its territorial claims as well as its international presence were remarkably prodigious. ISIS maintained control or a presence in provinces, or wilayats, of Libya, Algeria, Yemen, West Africa, the North Caucasus, Southeast Asia, and Gaza, as well as maintaining a Sinai province and Khorasan province including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The organisation has conducted far-reaching operations in European countries, the Paris and Brussels attacks being the most obvious examples. Militants involved in both attacks were trained in al-Bab and Raqqa by an ISIS cell, ‘sent across the border into Turkey and then on a painstaking journey through the continent, tailored to avoid detection.’ ISIS was a powerful organisation, well equipped, trained and ideologically fuelled to cause destruction and mayhem both regionally and globally. After seizing Mosul, they quickly ‘splintered the authority of embattled leaders on both sides of the now-irrelevant border between Iraq and Syria.’ Their grip on the region has defined the foreign policy for many larger western powers and pushed local powers to war. But it seems ISIS’s dream of a worldwide Caliphate was simply not to be – for the last few weeks have undone much of their territorial advance.
ISIS’s capture of Mosul seemed to paint them as an unstoppable force, defeating a government garrison of 60,000 troops stationed there. The carnage wrought from their occupation framed their international image, but in many ways also secured their defeat. Galvanised against ISIS, alliances and proxy backing by foreign powers, although the source of much civilian bloodshed, have succeeded in displacing large portions ISIS’s forces. After a forceful month long incursion by US-backed Kurdish groups and a 24-hour siege by the Turkish military, both Manbij and Jarabulus, the gateway cities to Turkey, fell from ISIS’s grasp. As thousands of hostages in each town are freed, ISIS morale continues to fall. A year ago, Mosul was considered by the Iraq military as too well fortified and therefore too difficult to successfully liberate. This viewpoint has been reversed, as Iraqi soldiers have retaken a key bridge into Mosul after advancing through the Jawsaq district and declaring eastern Mosul as ‘fully liberated.’ If and when Mosul falls, its loss to ISIS will be a devastating defeat, as most of its forces have already been pushed back to Raqqa, where many western attacks were planned and where ISIS as an organisation was conceived. So, Mosul falls, larger Syrian cities will follow, and ISIS has already been driven out of the city of Palmyra for a second time. ISIS seems to be taking heavy casualties, and according to one UK Major General Rupert Jones, ISIS militants are being killed ‘at a rate they simply can’t sustain.’ Over the last two years, they have lost over 50,000 fighters, mostly to airstrikes – and that was described as a ‘conservative estimate.’ This is in stark contrast to the 200,000 militants estimated in 2014, as it is now estimated that ISIS only has 25,000 fighters operating in Syria and Iraq, with between a 75 and 90 per cent reduction in the travel of foreign fighters to join the terrorist organisation. It does seem that ISIS, as hard and gruesome a battle they fought, are soon to be worsted.
Their slow decline will not come without a cost. More immediately, victory in Mosul may push forces towards the undefended Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. But there are long-term effects that are primary concerns. There exists, through necessity, an ‘edgy détente’ between many of the conflicting forces that are currently fighting against ISIS. The conflict between the Iraqi government and Iraqi Kurds are one example of tension that, although previously relaxed, may resume. After the defeat of the Iraqi army in 2014, Iraqi Kurds used the confusion to settle in long contested land – land that will not leave non-Kurdish Iraqi hands easily once ISIS is dealt with. The complex proxy war happening in Syria is another question of a power vacuum, or at least a power struggle, that will incarnate in absence of ISIS’s threat. The basis of the Syrian civil war involving the Free Syrian Army, who originally defected from Assad’s government and engaged with his forces, is only the base conflict. Besides the traveling extremist groups that began to add to the chaos on the ground, the conflict involves Kurdish forces fighting pro-Assad forces, the Middle East divided between Sunni powers supporting the rebels and Shia powers supporting Assad. Proxy influence and monetary backing is coming from the Gulf States (primarily Saudi Arabia), Iran via Hezbollah, Turkey, Jordan, and of course, the US and Russia. While the carnage of the Syrian civil war rages on, largely through Russian and US airstrikes, conflict between ground forces has been stymied by a shakily united need to combat ISIS. With its presence not felt, the fighting may only amplify.
It is easy to forget that there is a human impact to this conflict, too. 470,000 people, 15,000 of them children, have died in Syria alone since the start of the fighting, and ISIS has brutally claimed the lives of many more. Impetuous and negligent airstrikes by both US and Russian forces have killed countless civilians, many times intentionally. Of course ISIS’s defeat would be the end of much captivity and brutality, but it cannot be forgotten that there are so many others, affected by much of the same conflict, in need of the same respite. ISIS’s decline comes at a shaky point in time for American politics, and it is unlikely that President Trump will engage with both ISIS and civilian population with a steady hand – his singular Middle Eastern strategy can be summed up by his promise to ‘bomb the s*** out of ISIS.’ This should not be accepted as a policy, not only because it lacks a clear plan, but because it disregards civilian lives at risk. Whatever ISIS’s fate (as deserved as it may be), it should be understood that whatever comes next is not something the international community should look forward to. It will not be worse, but it may not be better.