The Islamic State's Gains Mask Its Weakness

6 MINS READMay 20, 2015 | 09:00 GMT
Islamic State militants march with weapons in a propaganda video. (Islamic State)
(Islamic State)
Islamic State militants march with weapons in a propaganda video.

The Islamic State recently achieved several major victories in Syria and Iraq. Over the last week, militants pushed Iraqi government troops out of large portions of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. The group is now focusing its attacks on government-held territory between Ramadi and Fallujah. In Syria, the Islamic State also made gains in Homs governorate, around the strategic crossroads town of Tadmur, also known as Palmyra, essentially cutting supply lines to government forces stationed in Deir el-Zour to the northeast. There were also less successful attacks on government positions at Kweiris air base and Deir el-Zour governorate, which showcase the group's ability to launch multi-pronged attacks over a large region.

The latest flurry of successful offensives highlight the continued threat the militant organization poses not only to Baghdad and Damascus, but also to fellow rebel groups and militias. The recent victories will in turn bolster the Islamic State with an influx of weapons, supplies and recruits. Yet, these gains mask structural problems the Islamic State must overcome as it battles formidable opponents in two different countries.

Continuous victories in Iraq as well as Syria are essential to the survival of the Islamic State for a number of reasons. First, the group's structure requires it to foster a perception that its advance is inexorable and that opponents cannot stop its territorial expansion. This narrative is what maintains the continuous stream of foreign recruits on which it is highly dependent. At the same time, the Islamic State understands that it is vulnerable to being ground down in a war of attrition — it lacks the strategic supplies needed to outlast its enemies. Retaining the initiative over its opponents as well as keeping up real and imagined momentum is critical. Only by doing so can the Islamic State seize land, weapons and supplies from the enemy, thereby maintaining its attractiveness to new recruits.

The fall of Ramadi is a good example of the type of symbolic victory Islamic State seeks. The city has been heavily disputed since early 2014, and the most recent slide toward Islamic State benefits the occupiers, not only in terms of achieving a defensible position, but also because of the materiel left behind by retreating government troops. The Islamic State excels at foraging and repurposing arms and supplies. But, more important than tactical or logistical gains, the victory is much-needed fodder for the Islamic State propaganda machine.

In practical terms, however, the advance may be short-lived. Baghdad is already planning a swift counterattack. The Iraqi government has marshaled its own forces — supported by Shiite militias — at Al Habbaniyah military base and other assembly areas on the periphery of Ramadi. Both sides now face the major difficulty of stringing together enough successive tactical victories to decisively hold the territory.

A Battle of Two Fronts

Baghdad and the Islamic State are fighting on two fronts in Iraq's two major river valleys, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Since the government took the Tigris valley city of Tikrit back from Islamic State, there has been an inverse relationship between the successes on each front. Beiji on the Tigris and Ramadi on the Euphrates have been the key respective battles. Every time Baghdad committed forces and saw success in one battle, the other front turned against them. This dilemma stems from an overall capacity problem: Baghdad simply does not have enough quality troops to take and hold territory on both fronts, especially in the Sunni-dominated areas where the government is trying to project power.

Baghdad has several options to harden its forces to hold these Sunni areas — all have major drawbacks. One of these options is to deploy Shiite militias. Up to this point, the government has used these militias sparingly because it fears sparking deeper sectarian conflict. However, with the fall of Ramadi to the Islamic State, Baghdad has been forced to commit to using Shiite fighters in volume. The decision does not guarantee Sunni backlash, but raises the risk of such an outcome.

And between all these forces, the loyalties of the larger Sunni community and its tribal fighters are still not yet clear. If the community aligns with Baghdad and the government becomes willing to empower them, the Islamic State could suffer rapid reversals. The Islamic State has worked hard to maintain the support of Iraq's Sunnis — or at least avoided provoking them to active opposition. Without some sort of shift, the Iraq conflict will continue to result in attrition of manpower and materiel on both sides.

Across Two Countries

Fighting a conflict on multiple fronts across two countries has been extremely difficult for Islamic State over the last few months. The group suffered considerable casualties in Tikrit, which was the culmination of Islamic State's first significant territorial reversal since the group took Mosul in June 2014. At the same time, a number of other setbacks began undermining the group's strategic and propaganda position. These included the start of the U.S.-led coalition air campaign as well as the grinding fight around Kobani, al-Hasaka, al-Shaer and Deir el-Zour. The Islamic States also failed to seize considerable new territory in Syria even as the rebel group Jaish al-Fatah scored sizable victories. In effect, the Islamic State needs to take back the initiative, score big victories, and maintain them to survive.

The Islamic State's series of offensives gives the initial impression that it has a limitless supply of fighters. The group has managed to wage intense battles on multiple fronts at once, while beset with continued coalition airstrikes. This impression, however, is incorrect. Until these recent gains, the Islamic State's position had weakened substantially. The group shows signs of increasing desperation, underscored by its increasing use of child soldiers in Syria over the last two months.

The clearest indication of the Islamic State's weakness is Syria. The Islamic State lost Tikrit to overwhelming forces but remained strong in Iraq, even managing to accelerate attacks in both Beiji and Anbar. This strength, however, came from the transfer of large numbers of forces out of Syria and into Iraq. Beginning two months ago, Islamic State leaders circulated documents calling for Syria-based fighters to volunteer to reinforce their brethren in Iraq's Anbar and Salahuddin provinces. A notable decrease in Islamic State presence in both Aleppo and Raqaa followed. This vulnerability allowed Kurdish People's Protection Units and their Free Syrian Army allies to advance in eastern Aleppo province and into Raqaa. Last week, rebel Islamic Front forces north of the city of Aleppo advanced into previously Islamic State territory and encountered little resistance, mostly coming in the form of improvised explosive devices.

Still a Credible Threat

The Islamic State's ability to conduct military offensives underscores the group's flexibility and resilience. It has managed to score victories despite fighting on multiple fronts, with a limited supply of fighters. The gains in Iraq were carried out with reinforcements drawn from Syria, but the Islamic State also took advantage of a key opportunity in Syria's Idlib province as rebels made gains over government loyalists. On the one hand, these rebel victories in Idlib threatened to draw potential foreign recruits away from the Islamic State to groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. The Islamic State recognized, though, that the rebel offensive drew government forces away from battlefronts against the Islamic State. Specifically, Damascus withdrew the Tiger Forces, Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Falcons) and elements of the 106th Republican Brigade from areas of Homs, enabling the Islamic State to launch their own offensive against Palmyra in Homs province. This advance has been the largest and most successful recent Islamic State advance in Syria.

The latest round of offensives demonstrates that the Islamic State still poses a credible threat to its opponents. Yet, any new victories can only delay its downfall. The Islamic State can acquire new weapons, supplies and recruits, but it is not invulnerable. Providing that its numerous enemies can maintain their will and cohesion, the Islamic State will continue to weaken over time, leading to an inevitable defeat. 

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