Last year the Islamic State terrorist group has faced a series of violent attacks and offensives from both US-led coalition and Syria-Russia-Iran axis as well as predominantly Kurdish SDF and Turkish army\FSA proxies. Suffering from heavy bombardment, artillery, drone, missile strikes all over the “caliphate’s” territory, total economic blockade and finally massive ground offensives all the year, ISIS experienced a number of important setbacks but has eventually survived in 2016 unlike many experts’ predictions.
First of all during long and tough countryside warfare with Iraqi security forces, mainly newly-formed and US-trained and supplied “Golden division”, the terrorist group has lost control of the so-called “sunni triangle” north-west of Baghdad – the provincial capital of Anbar – Ar-Ramadi, the region of Hit and the notorious city of Al-Fallujah. This loss makes it totally impossible for IS to conduct large military operations and raids on and near Baghdad also finally dispelling the group’s plans of general battle for the ancient Middle East city in order to make it “caliphate’s” capital like it was in Abbasids era.
Secondly, due to large Turkey military operation in northern Syria – the “Euphrates shield”, IS was driven out of the important region in north-eastern Aleppo province also known as Azaz-Jarablus-Al-Bab triangle. The retreat from Jarablus and eventually Al-Bab marked the end of group’s presence along the Syrian-Turkish border which means not only the end of any previous Erdogan-IS cooperation but also a full cut of the “Islamic State” ties with various “humanitarian” Saudi and Qatar funds located in Turkey.
The same time mainly because of new US president Donald Trump’s anti-IS strategy which has removed all restrictions of US supplying SDF units, the former were able to make large gains in northern Syria, strongly isolating the IS self-proclaimed capital of Ar-Raqqa and nearly connecting with their fellow men in Afrin canton.
The group’s held large areas in vast Syrian desert were also vulnerable for Damascus attacks despite the fact that no major gains were made by government forces. Now the Syrian desert or eastern Homs warfare as mostly concentrated round the ancient city of Tadmor (Palmyra), lately recaptured by SAA and Russia once again.
Furthermore SAA’s 3d armoured division alongside 4th division’s special operations branch and some units of ruling Baath party have made attempts to widen a buffer zone with IS near Christian town of Al-Qaratayn and Saiqal military airbase in eastern Damascus. These movements put the local IS units in danger of being expelled from the Damascus province and even isolated from their bases in east Homs if strategic Barida crossroad is captured.
However all aforementioned setbacks still don’t let us say that the group is on verge of collapsing.
Despite the fact that war on IS is widely covered by many MSM, non-government and analysis organizations, independent experts and journalists, we can’t be sure of real group’s casualties numbers since IS has shown solid skills in camouflaging convoys and bases, hardly fortifying real ones and even producing fake targets like wooden vehicles, tanks and car bombs. Also we should consider that withdrawal from Al-Bab or Ramadi, for instance, may be not a sign of heavy losses in the group’s ranks, but a tactical or strategic move to save fighting capabilities for coming operations while there is no chances to overcome strong resistance, fire and bombardment of their rivals in big cities and towns. The idea may be sustained with the fact that IS leaders have been making their decisions mostly on the assumption of biggest profits and real state of things in each case since the “Islamic State” was established.
So we may suggest that IS still can form and send quite massive reinforcements in any area of escalated fighting.
On the other hand almost all IS losses in 2016 are heavy populated areas and big military installations like Al-Qayarah military airbase, Mosul airport and its surroundings. Losing these sites means losing important strongholds to operate at the frontline and enemy’s rear offensively as well as losing huge weapon\ammunition depots and training camps. Thus the group is likely to turn their attention to consolidating previous gains and building large defense lines in last vital places – Ar-Raqqa, Deir-ez-Zour, Al-Bukamal and Al-Qaim in 2017. In other words the thing we may be sure in is that the spread of the “caliphate” throughout Syria and Iraq is finally over.
The same time during 2016’s battles with Iraqi\Syrian governments, Turkey, FSA mercenaries, and Al-Nusra Front (currently named as “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham”) IS clearly demonstrated that fighting it all mentioned powers are fighting a state, not just rich and large terrorist group.
IS is the only Middle East jihadist force (except partly recognized Hezbollah) to set up massive production and effective usage of armed drones and SVBIEDs – suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices or car bombs. Some other hardline islamists (e.g. Al-Nusra front, Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa) has also used it around Syrian cities of Aleppo and Daraa and in Hama northern countryside, but all them didn’t manage to produce such vehicles on an industrial scale, use people of any nationality to drive it and use it day by day to crush enemy’s frontline. The usage and production of armed drones which has actively started around three months ago also shows an industrial approach and seems to be elaborated as a doctrine, not just for some concrete cases.
Dawawins or state institutions of IS – Dawawin al-Jund (“defense ministry), Dawawin at-Taalim (“educational ministry”), Dawawin Fay val Ganaim (“spoils of war ministry”), Dawawin al-Amni al-Umm (“internal ministry”) and others, are likely not just handsome titles but working structures producing weapon, food, electricity, soldiers, engineers, experienced field commanders and “living bombs”. The latters should be considered vivid examples of IS techniques to work with the area’s population and use it “on its full capacity” as not only hundreds of middle-aged men are launching such attack on daily basis in every part of the “caliphate”, but also foreigners, elderly people and even kids from 12 to 17 years old. Furthermore, we may suggest that a very solid part of that people isn’t hardly made launch these suicide missions as there were no serious uprisings or protests clearly recorded across the ISIS lands in Syria and Iraq. Thus some kinds of mental pressure should be used to cause at least dozens persons of ripe years and their children monthly blow themselves up among SF gatherings. Also it’s important to note many of aforementioned bombers haven’t previously fought alongside IS militants but lived as civilians.
Examples: IS suicide bomber from Poland who detonated himself while Eastern Aleppo battle
IS suicide bomber Abu Maliha from Canada who also attacked ISF in western Mosul
Abu Usama from Ireland attacked Iraqi PMU units south of Mosul
British suicide bomber Abu Zakariya previously released from Guantanamo
Youngsters who blown themselves during battles with ISF
Elderly people who went on a suicide mission in Mosul
One more astonishing thing created by IS is its numerous media outlets and services, which not only cope with problem of locals loyalty to IS, but also play very important role in recruiting foreigners, encouraging muslims join IS or contribute to it with their money and ties, and spreading the idea of “personal jihad” or lone-wolf attacks, which are striking Turkey, Europe and US since 2015. Productions of these media centres include feature films, documentaries, daily TV, radio, photo, social networks and newspapers reports on different aspects of life under the “Islamic State”, infographics, magazines, books and nasheeds.
IS infographics on drone usage from 2nd to 11th February 2017 shows 79 people killed or wounded, 27 vehicles destroyed by armed drones attacks
IS-affiliated Amaq News Agency infographics shows alleged Iraqi army casualties on the third week of Mosul battle
Photos showing social activities: cash distribution and school in Raqqa, Medical Centre near Tigris in Iraq, normal life in embattled Mosul city and judgement in Yarmouk basin
IS media agencies and outlets used to concentrate on showing normal life and social activities by IS services as well as civilians’ casualties caused by airstrikes or artillery shelling last months. It means people are consistently told not only the terrorist group is destroyed by coalition, Syria\Iraq, Russia efforts but the whole sunni population in the area threatened. Unfortunately, such claims have been proved many times by cruelty, looting and revenge acts conducted by anti-IS forces time to time as a normal feature of war.
Finally unlike many other participants in the conflict, IS has set up massive collection of “ganima” (spoils of war) to mete out later and programs of rebuilding, renovating or constructing armoured vehicles like tanks and personnel carriers.
Therefore all members of anti-IS efforts should consider fighting a powerful, clearly structured and determined enemy who has been owning the initiative in the war and in some ways representing wishes of people’s majority throughout his territory till now.
Despite this, the resources IS can use are decreasing day and night unlike IS rivals. Consequently the group is made to slowly abandon attacked sites e.g. Mosul and maybe Ar-Raqqa. In such a way it seems that in 2017 IS will be finally expelled from majority of big cities it controls now. But as we can see, terrorists have already began to change their strategy and tactics from large, Mosul-2014 and Raqqa-2013 style offensive to endless, grueling guerrilla war in desert. Simultaneously, no anti-IS alliance in Syria and Iraq is well-prepared for such kind of war up to now.
These means that even after been driven out of large urban zones and key town\villages the group is unlikely to disappear or give up their insurgency. On the contrary we may suggest IS will try hard to prolong its existence in Iraq and Syria especially in vast, remote desert areas like some Iraqi\Syrian tribes did it before 2011. The growing tensions between different groups fighting IS (e.g. Iraqi kurds and Baghdad) will apparently help islamists survive for more than one year.
Also some points indicate that more attention will be shifted to IS remote “willayas” – areas in Yemen, Afganistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Africa, central Asia, north-western China and Caucasus. Terrorists’ leaders may attempt to transport in some ways high-aimed and experienced fighters alongside weapons and exchequer to one of its “willayas” and try start the Iraqi scenario once again. As the 2013 proved any hard tensions inside mentioned countries may give IS remnants one more chance to renew their “state” in another area.
All things considered, even slowly disappearing as an effective state and military structure in Syria and Iraq, the “Islamic State” will potentially remain in history and political\military studies as a great example of self-built war and economical machine started at a prison sell and finally tried to challenge world’s mightiest powers.
Special thanks to @Terror_Monitor, @CT_operative and @siteintelgroup