By Alvite Singh Ningthoujam
15 April 2016
To fight the Islamic State, the need of hour is to uproot this outfit through military measures and ideologically. However, both these steps will require a copious amount of effort from the international community and from the Muslim society that is facing the brunt in the name of religion
The gradual loss of territories in Iraq and Syria is becoming a major setback for the terror outfit, the Islamic State. It is a serious dent to its ambitions to establish a Caliphate across the globe. Notwithstanding the loopholes in the anti-IS strategy, the United States-led coalition air strikes since late 2014, the Russian intervention from September last year, and coordinated efforts between different regional groups, including Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, have restricted the forward movement of this outfit. The ability of the Islamic State to capture vast swathes of land since mid-June 2014 may have raised its credibility as a resolute organisation committed to the objective. But the present-day reality is different.
The IS started to lose its grip in some of the areas it controlled in Iraq during 2015. This began with the re-capture of Tikrit in April by Iraqi forces in a joint operation with tribal forces and locals. The three-month campaign was indeed a complicated one as the city was planted with several improvised explosive devices. But this was followed by the outfit’s decisive victory which led to the fall of Ramadi in the following month. That said, the efforts continued to free territories from the clutch of the outfit continued, and resulted in the takeover of Baiji oil refinery in October which was captured by the IS in mid-June 2014.
The Iranian-backed Shiite militias played a pivotal role during the operation. While strategic city such as Mosul is yet to be liberated, a joint campaign undertaken by Peshmerga fighters and Yazidis led to the re-capture of Sinjar in Iraq in November. The loss of this city came as a blow as parts of routes linking with Syria were severed, and hampered the movement of fighters, smuggling of weapons, and the funding for the self-proclaimed caliphate. After taking control of this strategic territory, Ramadi was liberated in December 2015. Thereafter, the terror group has not made any significant progress.
Similar is the case inside Syria where territories once-held by the IS have begun to shrink although the so-called headquarters at Raqqa is still under its control. Tal Abyad, a Syrian town near Turkish border, was one of the firsts to be freed. It was a strategic asset as IS fighters used it as a route to Turkey and served as a supply conduit for Raqqa.
Kurdish Popular Protection Units, backed by the US air strikes, assisted in the liberation campaign. Amidst these developments, Turkey remains extremely concerned about the rising capabilities of the Syrian Kurds along the borders as they have been demanding a separate entity for themselves.
The commencement of the Russian air strikes from September 30, 2015, contributed to the cornering of the IS in Syria, and led to the re-capture of Palmyra in March this year. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement for the drawdown of troops from Syria on March 14, the Russian military campaigns shifted its target towards Palmyra and the nearby areas. This reignited debate over Russia’s potential return to West Asia as a major player.
While Russia’s military prowess has been exhibited, it is yet to be seen how far Moscow’s political clout will help in resolving the Syrian crisis. The latter aspect still looks shaky as other players, including the US, with vested interests, are not on the same table over the issue of political transition. Palmyra is likely to be used as a launch pad for the expansion of operations to gain back Provinces such as Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.
A US-based source estimated that the Caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi got shrunk by 12,000 sq km to 78,000 sq km between January and mid-December 2015. The loss of these territories also severely affected the financial system; as a result, there is an increasing rift between the fighters. Cutting of salaries is one of the most significant direct impacts of the continued air strikes and the resultant loss of territories.
As the IS upholds the centrality of establishing an Islamic State, the continuous shrinking of territories under its direct governance is a serious drawback. It was the blitzkrieg — like territorial expansion activity since mid-June 2014 which has made IS unique from all the contemporary terror groups. Through this, it has built an identity.
Even its parent organisation, the Al Qaeda, could not keep defined territories (despite its enormous network) of such magnitude since its inception in the late 1980s. The idea of having such an entity with administrative units, currency, social services, judicial, educational and banking systems have attracted like-minded terror outfits, supporters and sympathisers from different corners of the world. This was one of the reasons attributed to the allegiance pledged by extremist organisations and influx of several foreign recruits to Syria and Iraq. Now that the outfit is losing ground, the project is crumbling.
Despite the gradual retreats from these two countries, ISIS leaderships continue to make strategic decisions and give orders vis-à-vis operations for the region and beyond. Moreover, the physical and logistical capabilities to conduct attacks have not been fully contained or destroyed.
Another worrisome factor is the potential chemical or biological attacks. It allegedly used lethal weapons against the Kurdish forces in August last year, and early this year, the European Parliament and US intelligence sent out a warning for the possibility of such attacks in Europe. A serious debate on this issue was kick-started following the November 2015 Paris attacks. The inclusion of foreign recruits with educational and professional experiences on technical subjects such as physics, chemistry and computer science give valid reasons to be concerned in this regard. As a result, destroying their military capabilities, including the know-how to make bombs, should be one of the topmost priorities.
As the outfit is steadily losing ground, it has begun to export its terror activities abroad, or there is shift in its operational strategy. Several attacks either directly linked to IS or inspired by it already happened. Major incidents took place between late 2014 and March 2016 in France, Yemen, Tunisia, Turkey, Belgium, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Australia, Libya, Indonesia and Egypt.
The killings, particularly in Paris and Brussels, are clear manifestations of the outfit’s rising ability to strike overseas targets with meticulous planning. Considering the presence of vast Islamist networks with access to weapons systems, financial assistance and returnees with battlefield experiences, further attacks cannot be ruled out. This is applicable in the South and Southeast Asian context; too, from where fighters have moved towards West Asia, and disaffected groups and local terror outfits are looking for the right moment to strike. They are, thus, going to be a major challenge to the counter-terrorism measures of countries which are under the IS’s radar.
Furthermore, on the expansion front, it is increasingly looking towards Libya as a fallback option although it is yet to capture more territories. Notwithstanding geographical and financial limitations, further penetration into this country, will enable the outfit to use this northern African country as a springboard for the European and regional operations.
Another challenge is the issue of controlling the territories recaptured from the outfit. Owing to the highly sectarian nature of the conflict and the involvement of various factions with different objectives, there should be clear-cut policies of how to integrate and govern.
Last but not the least, merely liberating territories will not alone break the backbone of this outfit but it’s extremely pernicious ideology should be countered. Unfortunately, there are still no effective counter-narratives or de-radicalisation programmes that can prevent impressionable youths from blowing themselves up in the name of holy war.
The present-day radicalisation process, particularly in Europe, is a suitable example. In all likelihood, the outfit will become more transnational in its campaigns. Tackling these eminent problems is going to be a major challenge for a foreseeable future. The battlefield defeats will leave an impact on the IS’s activities inside Syria and Iraq. The need of the hour is to give undivided attention towards uprooting this outfit through military measures and ideologically. Both these steps require a copious effort from the international community and from Muslim society.
Alvite Singh Ningthoujam is a research associate at Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi