A decisive moment in the anti-ISIS campaign?

The Raqqa campaign is being delayed because forces are not prepared for an epic urban battle

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

Is Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) about to teeter? Does the group need a shove or a push? What happens next?

Metrics are suggesting that the ISIS is in trouble with reports of defectors, blackouts, and a collapse of some social services over the past few months. Taking out ISIS leaders is also rolling along with dozens of kills. Operation Inherent Resolve continues to pump out details about successes and the Joint Combined Task Force is indeed making a big dent.

In cyberspace, actions are being taken including assertive media campaigns as well as the shutting down of ISIS related twitter accounts. But air power and information operations are not the final answer as we all well know now: specific ground operations are required.

The key, of course, are the battles for Mosul, Raqqa, and now Sirte. These will ultimately be urban battles that will feature aggressive action by anti-ISIS forces to trounce ISIS believers.

All three cities are now in the sights of the anti-ISIS campaign. But there are problems. For instance, the Mosul campaign is taking time to shape while Raqqa is still far down the road. One GCC interlocutor said “Pushing all this six months from now only helps Daesh.” The Raqqa campaign, for the destruction of ISIS capital, is being delayed because the appropriate forces are not prepared for an epic urban battle.

There are also a variety of forces at play on the ground too numerous to mention but suffice it to say that have sharp competing interests on a sectarian angle.

The Libyan problem

With Libya, the situation is so muddled that military aid to the new UN imposed government by America, Italy, and other allies, the Government of National Accord (GNA), that it is not clear exactly which forces will be going after ISIS Libya in Sirte and surrounding areas. Clearly, time is on the side of ISIS and not on the anti-ISIS coalition. That’s bad news.

ISIS is making itself heard in two major theaters now as these plans get pushed down the timeline. Already, ISIS is taking advantage of the lull by launching devastating suicide attacks in Iraq with several hundred dead to date.

Metrics are suggesting that the ISIS is in trouble with reports of defectors, blackouts, and a collapse of some social services over the past few months

Dr. Theodore Karasik

To boot, due to political upheaval in Baghdad by Maqtada al-Sadr with his Arab first policy to force change in Prime Minister Abadi’s government, ISIS is taking deadly aggressive moves to either force the resolve to launch a wider fight in Iraq’s capital city. With the Mosul operation delayed by Iraqi Security Force unable to fight, ISIS is able to push hard with heavy consequences.

ISIS is also using the run up to and during the Geneva talks on Syria to make serious gains in that wreaked state as well. ISIS attacked the Shaer gas field near Palmyra and made itself know in graphic and morbid ways in Deir ez-Zor by digging up a Christian cemetery.

This is not a new pattern as the terrorist group likes to make itself heard during diplomatic talks. Let’s recall that in February during a previous round of the Geneva Talks, ISIS attacked several targets in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and in Damascus against Alawaites.

While the Anti-ISIS coalition seeks a final knockout blow to the Caliphate and its appendage in Libya, there are several facts to consider:

First, ISIS is an “airborne disease” and still remains robust as the movement enters into a new combative and aggressive phase. Adherences will up the ante against the Anti-ISIS forces by challenging their authority.

This point is exactly what is happening now in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. In other words, ISIS is trying to provoke their mortal enemies to enter into a Final Battle. The cybersphere will surely increase in its traffic and volume as these battles occur. All sides will be spinning away. Anti-ISIS forces need to be put on their counter-narrative game face fast.

Second, the three urban areas are likely to be awash with weapons and any constabulary force will be struck by violence. Attacking police and their training centers is a hallmark ISIS tactic and now developed with accuracy. In other words, what is happening now will still be occurring perhaps years from now unless safeguards are implemented. Planning now for this reality may help either preserve institutions or create secure new ones with forethought.

Third, is the splatter effect. The first aspect here is that these urban campaigns will result in a major exodus of ISIS survivors both fighters and those brainwashed by the group’s faulty religious beliefs. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people will require some type of de-radicalization treatment, some for a very long term period.

The second angle is that thousands of ISIS adherents will go on a rampage of revenge across many continents. Shoved out of their own areas of governance, they will flee to many neighboring countries in order to create more chaos. With ISIS adherents are able to move about, it seems, with relative ease, there needs to be a radical fix to this illicit transit system outwards from the emerging battle zones. This is not impossible.

Overall, this is a defining moment in the fight against ISIS. But it’s not exactly the way it is being advertised. The three pending battles over two geographical regions represents a defining moment in the trajectory of all parties. Planning is key. But ISIS knows what is coming and will exploit Anti-ISIS gaps to a very wide degree.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik

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