This article is part of series of articles on the developing situation in Middle East and its impacts on the entire region as well as globe.
The Islamic State (IS) previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) came to the forefront at the end of 2013 when it captured large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq. The capture of Ar-Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, the second largest Iraqi city, provided IS, a non-state actor with unprecedented power and influence unmatched by any terrorist group in history. The proclamation of a worldwide “Caliphate” in June 2014 by Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi, the leader of IS lead to various Islamist extremist groups across Asia and Africa, pledging allegiance to the group. As of March 2016, the group exercises authority over an estimated 2.8 million and 8 million people in Syria and Iraq. IS controls almost 48 percent of Syrian and 28 percent of Iraqi territory. In addition to that, IS also control areas in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and Yemen with territorial claims in other states as well. The blitzkrieg launched by IS and the resulting advances shocked the entire world.
The attacks in France and Belgium exhibited Islamic State’s ability to target areas far away from it’s sphere of influence. The threats posed by IS forced USA, Russia, France, UK, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Germany to intervene in Syria and Iraq and target IS. The United States air campaign against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq began in August 2014 while the Russian air campaign began a year later in September 2015. The French air force conducted airstrikes in Syria after the November 2015 attacks in Paris in which at least 135 civilians were brutally gunned down by the fighters affiliated with IS. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan have launched airstrikes of their own while Germany is busy arming and training Kurdish fighters in both the countries who are at loggerheads with IS. The involvement of these regional and extra regional powers to curb the advances made by IS in Syria and Iraq have internationalized the conflict. The Islamic State is the best example of how non-traditional security threats have over shadowed the traditional one’s and also the magnitude of the threat posed by non-state actors to the international security.
The combination of conventional and non-conventional tactics by Islamic State enabled it to first weaken the targets and then capture them by launching large scale assaults. The capture of large cities by IS exhibits how successfully the group made use of terror attacks to soften the targets and damage the morale of enemy and then striking with various units simultaneously in a conventional style warfare to capture them. Many fighters fighting under Islamic State banner previously fought for Al-Qaeda in Iraq but it’s real strength comes from the former officers and men of Saddam’s army who are now part of this terrorist group. These officers and men have converted this group into an effective fighting machine with proper hierarchy and chain of command. Unlike other terrorist groups, this group is not solely dependent upon a single military commander rather it has various commanders working in different areas with great autonomy to take independent decisions. In addition to that, local leaders leading a few dozen to a few hundred men deployed throughout Syria and Iraq provide flexibility to this group enabling it to deploy and concentrate forces where needed while policing areas of lesser importance.
Islamic State has control over vast swaths of territories in eastern Afghanistan especially in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces where it surprisingly clashes not only with Afghan National Army backed by Coalition forces, but also Afghan Taliban whom the IS group call the apostates. IS calls the areas in Afghanistan as Khorasan province and claims it has presence in Pakistan which is vehemently denied by the Pakistani government. However, the survival of this group in Afghanistan depends largely on funds and support from Iraq and Syria. IS also has presence in Sinai desert in Egypt where Russian Civil airliner was downed by a bomb and whose responsibility the group accepted. IS also has launched various attacks against Egyptian army in Sinai and made its presence felt by bombings in Cairo as well. Libya after the Arab Spring is in turmoil and the power vacuum created their as a result of the civil war is successfully exploited by the group by subduing its rivals and capturing territory. Boko Haram a terrorist group active in North Africa also pledged allegiance with Islamic State providing it further access and influence in North Africa. Yemen, another war torn country is witnessing the rise of IS.
The speed of IS advances in Iraq and Syria have indeed surprised many and the power and influence the group enjoys is unprecedented. But the momentum which Islamic State once possessed is gone. This group has made many enemies due to the brutality and atrocities committed by it. The execution of 1700 Iraqi soldiers captured while retreating from Mosul shocked the entire Iraqi nation and the world. The Shiite leaders in Iraq after the massacre called for Iraqi Shiite fighters to mobilize and fight the group. The call was answered by thousands of young men who formed various militias which are fighting alongside the inexperienced Iraqi army. The liberation of Tikrit and Ramadi are largely attributed to these Shiite militias. The group also tried to make advances in areas away from Sunni heart land in central Iraq, which strengthened the resolve of Shiite fighters to protect their holy sites in Baghdad and Karbala. The Iraqi Army is preparing a major offensive to re take Mosul from IS whose loss will be a major blow to the group. Moreover, the advance made by IS in Iraq resulted in unexpected informal alliance between US and Iran to stop the group’s advances. According to various confirmed reports, the USA provided weapons to militias which are trained and lead by Iranian IRGC members. The US bombing campaign, the Iranian support to Iraqi government and Shiite militias and the offensives launched by Iraqi army have surely reversed IS gains and the former has gained initiative on the battlefield.
The situation for IS in Syria is not encouraging as well. The Syrian Army emboldened by Russian airstrikes has recaptured historic city of Palmyra. This was followed a week later by the recapture of Al-Qaryatain, another strategically important city. Meanwhile, the western backed Syrian rebels have launched an offensive of their own against IS around major Syrian city of Aleppo. The recent capture of Al-Rai, a town near Aleppo is a crucial step towards taking ISIL stronghold of Raqqa. The Kurdish YPG forces in Syria have routed IS completely from Kobane area. Their brethren in Iraq, the Peshmerga forces, have pushed ISIS back and are at few places only 20 kilo meters from Mosul. The US bombing campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq have started to take its toll. According to a report published by Pentagon in November 2015, more than 20000 IS fighters have been killed in Syria and Iraq in addition to hundreds of military vehicles and targets by US air force. The rebel offensive to capture Al-Rai (recaptured by IS a week later) was spearheaded by US air force. The Russian involvement in Syria has already started to bore its fruit. The massive gains made by Syrian army against IS were made possible by unrelenting Russian airstrikes. All these regional and international forces have helped curtail the advances of IS and have stolen the momentum from the group.
The Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Yemen have made their presence felt but have so far failed to match the groups advances and power in Syria and Iraq. The areas in these countries serve as “Strategic Depth” for the group. As the pressure mounts on IS in Syria and Iraq, it will seek to delegate some level of power to its international affiliates, while actively encouraging retaliatory attacks against high profile targets in these countries. The group might remain entrenched in these countries a little longer than in Syria and Iraq, but once the international community shifts its attention towards these areas, the group will find it difficult to survive. Unlike other terrorist groups, IS seeks to take over territory and then govern it with brutal force. The turmoil in Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya have allowed this group to do so, but once these states seek stability, the IS will slowly be enveloped and will lose its gains.
The contemporary world order consists of nation states system. The states are at the center of decision making in the world. The International Organizations and non-state actors have gained spotlight as well, but the core importance rests with the states. The states will never allow a terrorist non state actor to grow and flourish. The entire international community regardless of their differences has refused to recognize Islamic State as a legitimate state and have not granted it recognition of statehood. The effort of USA and Russia, two major powers to contain and destroy IS have started to come to effect. The recent gains made against IS are not an indication of final collapse of the group. The final victory will come at a heavy cost and will be slow. But the defeats faced by the group in Syria and Iraq points towards the fact that for IS, it is the “End of the Beginning”.