There is increasing evidence that Isis is on the defensive – bleeding, losing territories in Iraq and Syria, leaders, field commanders and thousands of combatants. Its mini-financial empire is also being systemically dismantled by the US-led coalition, exacting a heavy toll on its ability to pay the salaries of its fighters and the costs of ruling the caliphate.
More importantly, Isis’s access to foreign fighters has greatly diminished with Turkey’s recent military incursion into Syria. The caliphate in Iraq and Syria might not survive the gathering storm in the coming year.
But it will revert to its original type: urban guerrilla warfare and worldwide terrorism. Before he was killed in Syria this month, Isis’s second in command Abu Mohammad al-Adnani prepared Isis followers for future battles: “do you, O America, consider defeat to be the loss of a city or the loss of land? ...would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul or Sirte or Raqqa or even take all the cities and we were to return to our initial condition? Certainly not!”
Kyle Orton, a research fellow at The Henry Jackson Society, says No.
Isis’s statelet is faltering. But unfortunately, the way Isis is losing its urban strongholds is legitimising it, laying the groundwork for a military recovery.
Isis is waging a revolutionary war that prioritises politics and focuses on the long term, exhausting its enemies’ will. It can take military set-backs, provided they are useful ideologically. And the current losses are.
The Coalition is largely working with radically sectarian Iranian-controlled Shia militias in Iraq and an authoritarian Marxist-nationalist Kurdish group in Syria. Isis survived defeat in 2008, its ideologues retreating to the desert, plotting, killing off enemies, and waiting for an opportunity. Political change that brought persecution to Sunnis provided the hook and Isis polarised the situation still further.
With these Shia and Kurdish groups in occupation of Sunni cities – and Western willingness to engage decreasing over time – the opportunity to re-attempt the caliphate will arrive more quickly this time.