Though 2017 was a year of disaster for ISIS, with the terrorist organisation losing control of all the cities it once controlled in Iraq and Syria including Mosul and Raqqa, and with nearly all the territory, it once controlled lost, it is a fundamental mistake to think that it is wholly defeated or broken.
Both Presidents Trump and Putin have in my opinion been much too hasty to declare victory over it, whilst the distraction caused by the games the US has been playing with the Kurds in northern Syria have played directly into ISIS’s hands, and have secured it a further lease of life
Confirmation of the extent of the threat ISIS still poses in Syria has now been provided by the Lebanese news agency Al-Masdar, which has been a consistently reliable source of information about the Syrian war, with sources in the Syrian military and the Syrian government.
A recent report by Al-Masdar has estimated that ISIS still has 8,000 to 11,000 fighters scattered across Syria. It has provided the following breakdown of the areas where they are based
- The Yarmouk Basin – 1,500 to 2,000.
- Northwestern Syria – at least 1,000.
- Southern Damascus – 1,500 to 2,000 (some sources claim as high as 3,000).
- Western Deir Ezzor, east Homs desert – 200.
- Eastern bank of the middle Euphrates valley region – 3,000 to 4,000.
- Eastern Deir Ezzor desert near the Iraqi border – 1,000.
In addition Al-Masdar makes the following point about the (by Jihadi standards) high level of training and motivation of these ISIS fighters
To this effect it is worth noting that whilst with non-ISIS militant groups often only one-third of their declared ‘paper strength’ represents actual front-line fighters (with the remainder consisting of armed locals who do not operate beyond their town or village and have only taken up arms to receive a paycheck by which they can feed their families), all Islamic State fighters (even so with individuals missing limbs as video evidence shows) are generally trained and mobilized for operations at the front.
Overall Al-Masdar’s general conclusion about the continuing threat posed by these ISIS fighters is as follows
The fact that all these areas are dislocated from each other is important for future operations against them and represents a major improvement over previous years whereby the terrorist group held contiguous swathes of territory across the country that were centered along the Euphrates valley.
At the same time, the sight of isolated ISIS pockets on a map can create a false sense of security as it overlooks the fact that many thousands of fighters are still present within them.
Al-Masdar’s sources within the Syrian military make it likely that this is also the Syrian military’s assessment of the continued threat ISIS poses in Syria.
The pattern of the fighting in 2016 and 2017 has shown that ISIS’s fighters are no match for the conventional forces of the Syrian military when the two come up against each other on anything like equal terms.
This is true even in situations such as those which long existed in Deir Ezzor province where the Syrian troops has to fight ISIS without regular air support.
The cause of ISIS’s rapid expansion in Syria in 2014 and 2015 (before the Russian intervention radically altered the military picture) was not its success in defeating the Syrian army.
It was because the Syrian army had withdrawn from central and eastern Syria in order to defend the Syrian state’s critical heartland areas in western Syria along Syria’s Mediterranean coast which were coming under intense attack from Jihadi forces led by Al-Qaeda.
ISIS was able to use this withdrawal to fill the resulting vacuum and to set up its ‘caliphate’ in central and eastern Syria, which its leader Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi formally declared in the Great Mosque of Mosul in 2014.
After pressure on the Syrian military in western Syria eased following Al-Qaeda’s defeat in the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ in December 2016, the Syrian army – now heavily reinforced and retrained by the Iranians and the Russians – returned to central and eastern Syria in force in 2017.
At that point ISIS quickly collapsed, losing all the territories it had gained in central and eastern Syria over the course of 2014 and 2015 because of the Syrian army’s earlier withdrawal.
Simultaneously ISIS of course also came under intense pressure in Iraq from the US and Iranian backed Iraqi army, and in Syria from the US backed Kurds, losing in Iraq nearly all its territory and the key city of Mosul to the Iraqi army, and in Syria its erstwhile ‘capital’ Raqqa to the US backed Kurds.
Both the speed of ISIS’s apparent advance in 2014 and 2015, and the speed of its collapse in 2016 and 2017, have however served to obscure the true source of ISIS’s strength.
This is its ability to move large numbers of lightly armed but fanatical fighters rapidly across the Syrian and Iraqi deserts to carry out lighting raids on Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish military positions, and to seize towns and villages whilst those militaries are distracted with other matters.
By way of example, ISIS twice captured Palmyra, the first time in 2015 because the Syrian military was distracted by a massive Jihadi led offensive in northern Syria centred on Idlib province, and in 2015 because the Syrian military was distracted by its struggle with Al-Qaeda in Aleppo.
As soon as both of these crises abated the Syrian military – with Russian support – had no difficulty driving ISIS out of Palmyra and getting control of the city back again.
In other words ISIS is essentially a classic guerrilla force, not a conventional military force. Whenever it has sought to take on properly organised and properly led conventional militaries in face to fact conventional fighting it has lost.
ISIS’s fighters have however shown a consistent ability to outfight those of every other Jihadi group in Syria except until very recently Al-Qaeda’s.
Recently, with Al-Qaeda severely weakened by its defeat in the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ ISIS’s fighters have been successfully outfighting those of Al-Qaeda as well in areas of Syria formerly under unchallenged Al-Qaeda control near Damascus and in Idlib province.
This is important because a feature of the Syrian war has been one of constant feuding between Jihadi groups – between Al-Qaeda and ISIS above all – with ISIS now increasingly gaining the ascendancy near Damascus and in Idlib province as its fighters in these areas have been reinforced by ISIS fighters fleeing to these areas to escape the advances of the Syrian army in Syria’s centre and east.
Not only is ISIS still therefore a force to be reckoned with in Syria, but its political structures and its propaganda arm – specifically its ‘news agency’ Amaq – remain intact and continue to function. Its leader Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (“the Caliph Ibrahim”) also remains alive and is still at large.
ISIS’s defeat cannot be finally declared so long as these structures remain in being and so long as Al-Baghdadi remains alive and at large and any announcement that it has been defeated before these things happen is premature.
Objectively, ISIS ought to be in its last days. The entire world claims to be be united in revulsion against it.
All the forces present in Syria and Iraq – the Syrian and Iraqi armies, the various Kurdish militias, the militaries of the US, Russia, Iran and Turkey, the Shia militias including first and foremost Hezbollah, and even some of the Jihadi groups – all say that they are committed to its destruction.
If all these forces really were focused on ISIS’s destruction and were working together in order to achieve it, then the organisation’s existence would probably be counted in days rather than weeks.
That this is not happening is a shocking indictment of the geopolitical games of certain governments – the US government above all – and of the wholly unnecessary conflict between the US and Russia spawned by the Russiagate scandal, which has made despite their wishes cooperation between the US and Russian Presidents and the militaries of the two countries in the fight against ISIS impossible.