ISIS Still Holds Most Seized Land in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Sinai
The perception gaining in senior Western and Middle East intelligence circles is that the Islamic State is shrinking and increasingly demoralized as a military force. Therefore, instead of squandering costly resources of manpower and funds on large-scale wars, the smart thing to do is to let the jihadist organization waste away at its own pace until it disappears for good.
This evaluation is grounded in intelligence figures that find the ISIS fighting force has indeed withered in numbers from a 30,000-peak in the summer of 2014, when its jihadists seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria, to under 16,000 today.
It is just a hop from there to a dangerous and fallacious underestimate of the Islamic caliphate’s current capabilities, i.e., that ISIS or ISIL is so enfeebled that large US or Russian military forces are no longer necessary for bringing the terrorists to their knees. Instead, the big powers can play them as a ball for juggling in their own political and military interests.
Because ISIS was judged early this year to be in an advanced state of shrinkage, Moscow declined to follow through on the recovery in March of the Syrian heritage city of Palmyra by embarking on further action to dislodge ISIS in more places.
Palmyra’s fall opened the way for the Russians, the Syrian army and its pro-Iranian allies to smash their way southeast towards Deir ez-Zour and so bolster Bashar Assad’s grip on his regime.
But the Russians although talking at length about an Eastern Front in Syria, balked when it came to action.
Following the same scenario, the Americans also held their horses. At most, they try and pick off prominent ISIS figures from the air and sometimes succeed – although, this week, the Russians tried to steal their thunder by claiming they – and not the Americans – had managed to liquidate the senior ISIS leader, Mohammed al-Adnani.
Had Washington seriously meant to take out the ISIS Syrian capital of Raqqa, the necessary manpower resources were available, especially among the Syrian Kurdish militia.
However, just as the Russians held back from going after Deir ez-Zour, the Americans abstained from a Raqqa offensive, even though most of the big terrorist attacks in Europe, the US and Turkey were plotted and launched from the Islamic State’s Syrian hub of global terror.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources, this fundamental assessment of ISIS’ diminishing strength is overoptimistic and fails to take other key considerations into account:
1. Going back to 2014, ISIS success in seizing and holding large tracts of Iraqi and Syrian territory should be weighed in the correct context. Their spectacular success at the time owed less to their operational prowess and large numbers and more to the ineptness displayed by the Iraqi and Syrian armies and regimes.
2. Even now, their performance is below par, although Damascus is bolstered militarily by the Russian intervention and Baghdad by US and Iranian forces.
In Iraq, ISIS’ loss of around half of the terrain it seized two years ago does not signify a decline in its fighting prowess or improved performance by its foes, rather its reversion to the size and strength that suits its current requirements. The jihadists find that a small number of 12-15,000 fighters are sufficient to maintain firm control of inordinately broad spaces.
3. In Syria too, notwithstanding the large Russian military presence, ISIS continues to retain 70 percent of the land it captured two years hence.
4. This equation is paralleled in Libya and the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, where ISIS maintains around 16,000 fighters, equal to the sum of its deployments in Iraq and Syria. Nonetheless, in early August, although pro-government, pro-Western Libyan forces fighting ISIS, backed by US, British, Italian special operations forces and their air support, were able to capture the key Libyan port town of Sirte, a jihadist rearguard continues to put up a fierce fight to this day. ISIS still retains 70 percent of the territory originally seized in Libya.
A comparable situation prevails in Sinai. Despite dogged Egyptian army combat, backed by Israeli air power, the local ISIS franchise maintains a grip on 80 percent of its initial gains.