Though ISIS has held together surprisingly strongly in the face of the attacks of its multiple enemies, the last two weeks suggest that the tipping point has finally been reached, and that its disintegration has now begun.
Over vast stretches of central Syria its hold has been broken, with towns and villages being rapidly restored to the Syrian government’s control.
Its siege of Deir Ezzor has been broken and its fighters there are being slowly surrounded in the part of that city which it still controls.
It has lost its alternative capital of Mayadin after just a few days of fighting.
The Syrian army is now pressing it hard in its heartland east of the Euphrates river, but contrary to expectations of an apocalyptic battle between ISIS and the Syrian army there, its resistance has been sporadic, and its attempts to mount counter-attacks against the Syrian army’s lines of communication have all ended in failure.
Further north the Kurds have driven it out of Raqqa – though at horrific cost, and only after a deal was done to allow the 350 remaining ISIS fighters in the city to leave – whilst in Iraq it has been unable to capitalise on the Iraqi army’s re-focus on the Kurds to regain ground it has lost.
The organisation is not completely broken. The rapid advance of the Syrian army through central Syria has left bands of ISIS fighters still roaming around the central Syrian countryside, cut off from their comrades further east, but still dangerous.
Within Syria ISIS still controls a rapidly contracting belt of territory on either side of the Euphrates river, though it is no longer in possession of any major towns.
However ISIS still controls some towns in western Iraq, notably the small but important town of Al-Qaim.
ISIS also remains capable of limited offensives in odd places: for example ISIS fighters recently carried out a successful attack against Al-Qaeda fighters within the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the suburbs of Damascus.
However the strongest sign that the organisation is indeed starting to disintegrate is that it appears to have lost a series of running battles it recently fought against Al-Qaeda in Jihadi controlled areas of north west Syria, a fact which suggests that as the star of its “Caliphate” wanes it is losing the loyalty of Jihadi fighters, some of whom may be switching back to Al-Qaeda.
Most striking of all is the reported mass defection of tribal fighters formerly loyal to ISIS who were guarding the key Al-Omar oil fields in eastern Syria. They appear to have gone over en masse to the Kurdish led and US backed “Syrian Democratic Forces”, the umbrella name for the Kurdish led force which has just captured Raqqa.
No doubt this defection was carefully staged and was intended to keep the Al-Omar oil fields – the largest in Syria – out of the Syrian government’s hands. However even if the defection was staged, it still points to an ongoing collapse on the part of ISIS in eastern Syria.
The critical remaining battle against ISIS in Syria is the one in the city of Deir Ezzor. This is apparently a much bigger city than Raqqa (the published population figures for the two cities, which do not bear out this claim, are out of date and wrong) and there continues to be fierce fighting there between the Syrian army and the ISIS fighters who over the course of a four year siege were able to capture around two fifths of the city.
However latest reports suggest that the Syrian army has the ISIS fighters in Deir Ezzor largely surrounded, and it seems that their resistance there cannot be sustained for very long. Most expect it to collapse within the next few days or possibly weeks.
When the collapse in Deir Ezzor comes that will release more Syrian troops to take the fight to ISIS elsewhere, at which point the pace of its disintegration will accelerate.
The received wisdom in the Western media is that ISIS will nonetheless be able to survive these defeats and the imminent loss of its remaining territory. Supposedly, though these defeats will destroy the fiction of its “Caliphate”, ISIS will nonetheless be able to transform itself back into the terrorist and guerrilla organisation which it was before its territorial conquests of 2014, and will be able to survive that way. For a classic though intelligent and nuanced statement of this view, see this lengthy article in the Guardian, which by the way is also remarkable for its failure to make any reference whatsoever to Iran and Russia and to the central role of those countries in the defeat of ISIS.
I do not agree with this view. I think those Western commentators who hold it still have not grasped the implications of ISIS’s proclamation of the Caliphate and its declaration that it is the “Islamic State” to which all Muslims everywhere owe allegiance.
There is no going back on this claim and the making of it means that ISIS became a different organisation because of it than it had been before, and cannot go back to being the same sort of organisation again that it was before.
The thousands of fighters who flocked to ISIS in preference to other older and more established Jihadi organisations such as Al-Qaeda, and who fought ISIS’s battles for it after 2014, did so because they believed its claim that it was the Islamic State and that Al-Baghdadi was Islam’s Caliph. Al-Baghdadi and ISIS’s other leaders cannot now credibly tell them that it was all a mistake, and expect them to remain loyal to ISIS in spite of it.
What that means is that the existence of ISIS is now inextricably bound up with its Caliphate. As has been correctly said, a Caliphate without territory is no longer credible, and I would add that a Caliphate which has been repeatedly and resoundingly defeated by “apostate” and “Christian” armies is not credible either.
Perhaps if Al-Baghdadi survives the debacle and finds somewhere where he can hide he will continue to attract some followers who will still in spite of everything continue to accept him as Islam’s Caliph. The number of these people will however be tiny – what sort of Caliph has to hide? – and whatever organisation survives ISIS’s loss of its territory it will be a shadow of the organisation ISIS once was.
I predicted all this and ISIS’s imminent demise in an article I wrote for Sputnik on 19th January 2016 – ie. shortly after the Russian intervention in Syria began – in which I also expressed some views about the organisation’s origins and the reasons for its ephemeral success.
Since this article was relatively short and sums up my views of the reasons both for the emergence of the organisation and for its eventual failure, I will set it out here in full
The Islamic State (also known as Daesh) is the bastard child of the US’s drive to achieve regime change in Syria.
To that end the US and its allies instigated an armed insurrection against the Syrian government.Though protests — many of them violent — began in 2011, it was in 2012 — after the Geneva Peace Conference — which the US wrecked by insisting President Assad stand down — that the major fighting began, with a rebel offensive against Syria’s two biggest cities: Aleppo and Damascus.
The offensive failed. The Syrian government survived, retaining control of Damascus and half of Aleppo.
Defending these cities and the populated coastal core of Syria however forced the Syrian army to withdraw from large areas of Syrian territory, most of them desert.
In 2013 the military balance shifted back to the Syrian government.
The US response was to try to use a chemical attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta as a pretext to bomb Syria. When that failed because of strong opposition from Russia and US public opinion it stepped up support for the insurgency.
Weapons, money and fighters poured in, and over the course of 2014 the military balance shifted back to the rebels again.The main beneficiary was the organisation that now calls itself the Islamic State.
This began as the Iraqi branch of the global jihadi terrorist group Al-Qaeda.
It took advantage of the vacuum created by the Syrian army’s withdrawal from Syria’s desert regions to expand into Syria and to establish itself there.
As the best organised, most violent and most militant of the jihadi groups that form the core of the Syrian rebellion, it quickly achieved predominance especially as it focused on seizing territory rather than fighting the Syrian army.
In 2014 it went on the offensive in Iraq, seizing the important city of Mosul.
Shortly after it declared itself the Islamic State and proclaimed its leader — the man known as Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi — Islam’s Caliph.
The Islamic State is said to have a Wahhabist or Salafist ideology, like those in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and like that of its original parent, Al-Qaeda. Actually it combines Salafism with an apocalyptic vision previously unknown to Islam.
As it says its leader is the Caliph it claims to be the only legitimate government for Muslims.
It rules the areas it controls by violence and terror, backed by money it gets from the Gulf and from the illegal oil trade.
All this explains why following Russia’s military intervention in Syria it is doomed.
The Russian military intervention means there is no danger of the Syrian government collapsing — as looked possible just a few months ago.
The Syrian army has now been able to go on the offensive, and is advancing on all fronts.
The Islamic State cannot withstand the Syrian army backed by the Russian airforce and Iran and Russia. However if it fails to hold the territory it has seized its claim to be the Islamic State collapses.
The only way the Islamic State could survive would be if the US and its allies acted to save it.
Its appalling violence and megalomaniac pretensions means that for the US it is however an embarrassment not an asset. The main thing Its grotesque antics have achieved is to unite world opinion behind the Syrian government and Russia.
Instead of willing the Islamic State’s survival, the US would far rather it disappear so it can support the other jihadi terrorist groups — the so-called “moderates” — without embarrassment.
That seals the Islamic State’s fate.
I discussed all this previously in another article I wrote for Sputnik on 4th October 2015
It seems to me Western pundits are making the same mistake now about Syria they made about Chechnya before.
They assume recklessly that local people prefer terrorism and violent jihadism to peace and orderly government.
They fantasise about the existence of a “third force” consisting of people opposing the government and those fighting it whom they also also oppose.
The latest opinion poll in Syria and Iraq exposes the extent of their mistake.
It shows very low support for the Islamic State in Iraq, and low support for the Islamic State in Syria.
It shows overwhelming majorities of Syrians and Iraqis reject sectarianism, want their countries to remain united, and believe the Islamic State is a creation of the US.
It shows a very wide belief in Syria that conditions were better before the war.
Given the danger of speaking out against the Islamic State in the areas it controls, the poll almost certainly underestimates the extent of opposition to it.It shows a clear majority of Syrians support a position in all essentials identical to that of the Russian government: an end to the war, the defeat of jihadi terrorists, a return to peaceful conditions, and negotiations without preconditions between Syria’s factions.