ISIS is not just lurking; it is preparing for the long haul
ISIS is ready for a new fight and appears to be focusing on strengthening its hold over a triangle of Syrian territory connecting its main base of operations
Despite a kinetic campaign against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) led by Russia and America from different angles, ISIS continues to persevere. How many times in the past few months did readers see headlines regarding the ISIS’s demise in Mosul and other parts of the Levant? A dozen perhaps. Or reports of drone strikes decapitating ISIS leadership? Or that Ibrahim al-Baghdadi is injured? The truth of the matter is ISIS is resilient, nimble, and not easy to kill.
The Obama administration, in its waning hours, sent a message to al-Qaeda and ISIS. A B-52 attack, west of Aleppo, killed more than 100 fighters of presumably the Khorasan Group who still lurks in that geographical zone despite many attempts to drone them to death. Simultaneously, the Pentagon reported that B-2 stealth bombers had flown their first combat mission in nearly six years to attack two training camps in Libya dropping over 200 precision guided munitions (PGM)s that killed over 70 ISIS fighters.
Now under President Donald Trump, ISIS is ready for a new fight and appears to be focusing on strengthening its hold over a triangle of Syrian territory connecting its main base of operations with Palmyra to the southwest and Deir al-Zor to the southeast with reinforcements coming in from Iraq. ISIS is digging in and ready to put up a fight.
In Mosul, ISIS had two years to consolidate its power. It looks like it is going to be able to manage robust pockets in parts of Mosul for some time. ISIS’s capital Raqqa is next with probes already beginning. Raqqa represents the core of the ISIS and they are unlikely to leave without a fight.
Now under President Donald Trump, ISIS is ready for a new fight and appears to be focusing on strengthening its hold over a triangle of Syrian territory connecting its main base of operations with Palmyra to the southwest and Deir al-Zor to the southeast with reinforcements coming in from IraqDr. Theodore Karasik
A major ground intervention by one of the main external players, the US, Turkey, or Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian government forces, to expel the ISIS from Raqqa in 2017. The city is sprawled out and is a major urban operation nightmare.
ISIS must be joyful of President Trump’s attitude to come kill them. It is also enjoying the Astana talks that for them represents a new direction to exploit with terrorism. It is no joke to the Central Asian states that Uzbek citizen Abdulkadir Masharipov turned out to be well-connected to ISIS in Raqqa.
With the Trump administration leaning toward sending 30,000 ground troops to East Syria likely, ISIS likely intends to bog down the outside powers and their regional proxies. ISIS seems emboldened now.
Divided over ideology
First, ISIS is divided over ideology yet remains a formable force according to a recent report. There is no doubt that disciples are able to execute a campaign designed to build morale and boost the costs of a campaign against ISIS. To be sure, ISIS continues to capture military equipment, transport oil, and grab territory.
Such moves build fighter confidence to continue their cause for another day. Interestingly, ISIS attrition is not decreasing morale or creativity. Second, is ISIS finding ways to innovate off the shelf technology, capitalizing on their losses by relying on new weapons supplies and the ability to gain access to military technology. ISIS is now able to have eyes from above for surveying the terrain around them and deliver rudimentary explosive devices.
Now ISIS drones carry small payloads. In urban battles from Sirte to Mosul, ISIS fighters are able to continuously use suicide bombers to instill confusion, fear, and test defenses for future operations.
Third, is strategic space and depth in which ISIS operates. ISIS appears to be focusing on strengthening its hold over a triangle of Syrian territory connecting its main base of operations with Palmyra to the southwest and Deir al-Zor to the southeast Geography plays a key role in ISIS’s resilience.
The group uses broad deserts and plans mixed with 21st century interconnectivity while knowing the local terrain and tribes that to ISIS networks with in this area, between Anbar and Deir al-Zor. Deir al-Zor has so far been a secondary priority for the Syrian army and its allies, which are battling against rebel forces in western Syria.
These ISIS fighters are able to project “at will” knowing their enemies’ weakness to hold any territory in Syria’s East. Just when the Russian-led Syrian Arab Army captured Aleppo, the injection of Turkey’s Operations Euphrates further into the central northern core of the broken Syria, and the pressing forward of the Iraqi-led Operation “We Are Coming, Nineveh” to clear Mosul, ISIS was able to launch multiple terror attacks in Baghdad, in Jordan, and in Turkey abroad while recapture Palmyra.
ISIS struck out at Russia tremendously. The actions of the outside and regional powers were overmatched in the past month by ISIS fighters. It is lurking in the background. The aim is to create an impenetrable urban stronghold throughout the areas under ISIS control, thus playing for time. It’s a strategy used before in Sirte, Libya. Ultimately, Mosul may be captured but the Iraqi government could still lose the peace.
The lack of a plan for Mosul’s future may create a security vacuum, which in turn stirs a major power struggle, causing further problems and the return of ISIS, who by this time, are making the Battle for Raqqa epic.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Washington DC-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.