Another week, another cease-fire in Syria. Following a U.S and Russia-brokered deal, a “cessation of hostilities” between Bashar al-Assad’s forces and opposition groups was set to go into force on September 12. This, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, would allow for cooperation to defeat the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and other jihadist groups.
The cease-fire deal, timed for the start of Eid al-Adha, comes in the wake of an intense round of fighting over the divided city of Aleppo. Optimists hope that it will at least enable aid to be brought into the beleaguered city. No one seems to think it will last for any serious length of time.
But while all eyes have focused on IS in Syria, developments in Iraq are proving equally, if not more instructive, in illuminating the group’s changing fortunes and — critically — its changing strategy in response to them.
Iraq has been consistently central to IS’s pursuit of its ideological goals. It was only when it captured the country’s third-largest city, Mosul, in the summer of 2014, that its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi felt finally able to declare the accomplishment of the group’s long-stated objective: the establishment of an Islamic caliphate that stretched across Syria and Iraq — demolishing the colonial-era Sykes-Picot border between the two countries in the process.
Back in 2014, IS controlled an area larger than Great Britain. Two years on, things look very different indeed. As the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces –as well as Iranian-backed Shi’ite Muslim militias — have fought back, IS has lost about half the territory it held at its peak, including control of vital oil fields. According to Reuters, by the end of July IS had lost access to three of the five Iraqi oil fields it once controlled. The article further reports that IS used to be able to sell at least 50 tanker truckloads of oil a day from the Qayara and Najma oil fields, south of Mosul. In the face of Baghdad’s fight to restore control, this has dropped to around five small tankers. That analysis was written before Turkey’s ground forces crossed into northern Syria on August 24 and captured 770 square kilometers of territory in just two weeks.
Financially weakened and under siege, IS now faces the imminent threat of losing Mosul to the Iraqi military, which, along with Raqqa in Syria, is one of the twin symbols of its claimed caliphate. Government forces and militia scored a big victory over IS when they recaptured the Qayyara air base just 65 kilometers south of Mosul this summer. According to commanders, a “big push” against the city could come as soon as late next month.
But all is not as well as it might seem in the fight against IS. Part of the reason for the growth of IS in Iraq was the vicious sectarianism of former Shi’ite Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which pushed many persecuted Sunnis, reluctantly, into the arms of IS. This is a problem that remains. As Rashad Ali, a resident senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London, observes: “A major problem in defeating IS is that the Hashd al-Shabi [an umbrella group of around 40, mainly Shi’ite, militias] play a leading role in the fight against it, and have, upon defeating IS forces, committed atrocities against local Sunni communities in towns and cities they have ‘liberated’ from IS. These are not just problematic in themselves, but have also led to a greater level of grievance against Baghdad and pushed the population toward supporting more Sunni resistance and terror groups in the region.”
Put simply: the forces battling IS often act as both its enemies and its recruiters — continuing at a military level the persecution of Sunnis that Maliki conducted at the political level.
The second point of interest is IS’s changing strategy in response to its increasing military defeats. As Ali observes: “Even the CIA have commented IS’s military defeats actually create a larger likelihood of terror attacks both in the region and outside as fighters disperse and the organization seeks to continue to try to project power.”
Islamic State 2.0
In essence, as it suffers more defeats Islamic State is changing its tactics accordingly; as it loses at home in Iraq, it has tried to “win” abroad in Europe. The IS attacks in Paris, Nice, and Brussels over the past year are a testament to a group that may be in the process of morphing essentially from a statelet with its own standing army into, once again, a more traditional terrorist group that employs guerrilla and insurgent-style activities on the battlefield, and urban terror attacks in the cities of the West.
Syria and Iraq have always been distinct arenas for IS. The strategic vacuum the civil war created in Syria meant that it was able to both take territory but also create a symbiotic relationship with Assad’s regime — one that lent each justification and legitimacy. For Assad: the presence of IS allowed him to claim he was fighting jihadists. For IS, Assad’s Iran-backed slaughter of Sunnis enabled the group to present itself, as Ali notes, as the only real and effective alternative.
In Iraq, while the group has fed off of Baghdad’s persecution (and slaughter) of Sunnis in a way similar to that in Syria, the military tactics of IS have always relied on defeating largely unmotivated, and often frightened, Iraqi military forces in strongly Sunni areas of the country. Unlike in Syria, they have not allowed themselves to become too attached to any city or town; often abandoning areas rather than risk losing too many of their core fighters — using more traditional terror tactics like IEDs to cause as much damage to incoming coalition or Iraqi troops as possible. In Iraq, it has always been more of a terror group than the army it is in Syria.
This makes it likely that this year could see Baghdad make further gains on the ground. But Baghdad is not fighting an opposing army there and the response will likely be an intensification of the trend of more insurgent attacks rather than outright battles, while those in Europe must brace themselves for yet more terror atrocities.
In Iraq we may be witnessing the emergence of IS 2.0. No matter the reversals it faces, as the recently killed IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, declared: “The battle of wills remains.