Just over a year ago, the Islamic State controlled 250,000 square kilometers of Syria and Iraq. By October, 2017, the jihadists had been thrown out of most of the towns and large urban centers it had captured in 2014 and lost the gas and oil fields, mainly in Syria, which nourished its war chest. Its domains had shrunk to 70,000 square kilometers.
By mid-2017, the Islamist fighting force had been pared down from around 100,000 in early 2016 to an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 jihadis by the summer of 2017. A further 10,000 had returned to their home countries.
These figures were presented by Army Gen. Raymond Thomas, head of the US Special Operations Command in a discussion at the Aspen Security Forum in July.
According to most intelligence sources, however, the Islamic State has been reduced by major battle losses, to a far smaller figure – no more than 20,000 armed men.
Still, a glance at its situation in 2014, when the jihadist group stunned the world with its lightning territorial grabs in Iraq and Syria and horrific atrocities, is illuminating: It reveals that ISIS fighting strength at that peak in its fortunes was just half of its current size!
Therefore, it may be too soon to celebrate the Islamic caliphate’s final defeat.
Indeed, ISIS is now holing up much of its fighting strength in the largely uninhabited Syrian Desert, DEBKA Weekly reports. One of the most arid deserts in the world, it is inhospitable for human habitation, lacking sources of food, water and medical facilities. But for an army on the run, its deep wadis, combined steppe and gravelly desert terrain and low-lying hills offer great tactical advantages. Broad spaces facilitate unimpeded rapid movement, while its deep gulches offer safe concealment, from which the fuigtives can play hide and seek with hostile satellite and air surveillance.
Last week, ISIS used these advantages for a surprise counter-attack against the Russian, Syrian and Hizballah forces which drove them back from Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria. It was led by a large contingent of Iraqi jihadists who passed through the desert with armored vehicles and artillery, out of the sight of Russian, Syrian or Iranian intelligence watchers.
According to our military sources, as many as 3,000 ISIS fighters slunk rapidly through the desert unobserved, to form up into an arrowhead which led the attack. Some penetrated about 200km deep inside Syria west of the Euphrates Valley and were able to regain control of large sections of the main highway from Palmyra to Deir ez-Zour.
Another tactic the Islamists used against the Syrian/Hizballah force was disguise and deception. Some pretended to surrender and hand in their weapons, while going secretly underground as spies for steering the fighting units to targets; others were occupied in laying in stocks of food, fuel, ammunition and water to sustain the fighting units. Commandoes smuggled themselves behind enemy lines wearing the uniforms of Syrian or Hizballah soldiers.
After the battle, the jihadis withdrew in good order, vanishing like shadows in the desert and crossing the Syrian border into Iraq.
As we reported in a separate article, the Americans have turned away from plans to “chase and destroy” ISIS in western Iraq. And the Russians, for their part, lack boots on the ground for this operation. It is therefore hard to find any military power able and willing to take on the next stage of the war to “eradicate and obliterate” ISIS, as President Donald Trump once pledged.
Last weekend, Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi described in glowing and graphic terms his army’s successful battle for the town of Hawija near the oil center of Kirkuk. This “battle” aptly illustrates how the war is quietly evolving. Iraqi army commanders, instead of engaging the jihadists in battle, negotiated an accommodation brokered by local tribal leaders. It was agreed that if ISIS let Iraqi soldiers through to Hawija without putting up resistance, the jihadists would be granted safe passage out of the town under Iraqi military safeguard.
The retreating jihadists left unharmed and headed for their next destination: the eastern Iraqi province of Diyala on the Iranian frontier.
This suited the Iraqi army’s book very well. Its chiefs were clearly glad to see ISIS fighting units flung as far as possible from the country’s important towns and financial centers. If this could be managed without firing a shot, so much the better..
Islamic State forces can therefore expect to remain undisturbed in their new desert hideouts while they wait for the next opportunity for gainful combat. After absorbing their losses and tactical retreats, ISIS is still well armed and ready to use its combat experience to continue jihad.