Why ISIS Keeps Stalling
Header photo of a Kurdish YPG guerilla, taken in the Rojava autonomous region.
In terms of battlefield arithmetic, something that stands out with embarrassing clarity is ISIS’ manpower inefficiency and casualty rates. It is, arguably, the one unifying characteristic of all their martial pushes thus far. Between losses from airstrikes to failed assaults against the Kurds, the staying pattern is that ISIS has been shedding an enormous amount of blood for very little. As of late August, ISIS is said to have abandoned swaths of territory it once held in Iraq in addition to getting pushed out of strategically crucial cities in Syria. Their net territory gains (in terms of accumulated land mass) are stalling - they've lost some valuable holdings, and picked up some less tactically important ones. For those in the geographic know, the loss of Tal Abyad is far more impactful than the capture of Palmyra. The former is a key supply line, the latter has artifacts.
In the midst of all the hysterics about ISIS's alleged unstoppability, a lot of sensible analysis about their weaknesses as a fighting force has gone ignored. Since cable news programs love big, scary numbers and the viewing attention they sustain, there’s been persistent hand-wringing over the number of foreign recruits who made the trek to join ISIS. One factor that’s omitted in this shameless fear-pandering is the astounding uselessness of the boys who abandon lives of middle-class comfort to engage in a few months of jihadi cosplay.
Something that’s become ISIS boilerplate is their shock-trooper methodology of combat engagement. It’s what allowed them to rapidly snatch up territory from poorly defended areas, and it’s the one place where foreign recruits with minimal training actually prove useful. Numerous reports recall an almost templated combat strategy - ISIS barrels into their opponent’s position with a front wave of suicide bombers, who are then followed by a mass of foot soldiers howling and shooting wildly. This tactic can be superficially terrifying, and so much of war is based on the manipulation of morale and fear, but throwing someone into the front line of combat is no guarantee said person has any idea what they’re actually doing.
There’s been a subject matter dearth in reporting about the Middle East concerning the competencies and distinct capabilities of various fighting forces, and it’s led to some pretty shoddy conclusions. Omitting the martial particularities of the militias engaged in Syria and Iraq has turned much of the reporting into a conflict-centric iteration of How To Lie With Statistics. ISIS captured x miles of territory in 2014, and have murdered y civilians, and because these numbers seem big and scary, ISIS is therefore big and scary. Tune in tomorrow while we replay a video of Lindsey Graham shrieking about how ISIS is one step away from razing America to the ground, and treat with deathly seriousness their “plans” to conquer the Iberian Peninsula.
Which leaves one to wonder exactly what fighting forces these big, scary jihadis have come up against since they started galumphing all over the Syrian and Iraqi badlands. The major factor that propelled ISIS to international attention and allowed them to perpetuate their campaign was the capturing of oil fields and supply line-crucial pieces of territory. In order for them to sustain momentum and expand their domain, they inevitably needed to overtake the Kurdish provinces in Syria. This, to put it mildly, has proven difficult.
Recent engagements between the Kurdish YPG and ISIS over the summer have ended in decisive victories for the Kurds and their allies and humiliating, bloody defeats for the jihadis. The Battle of Sarrin, a Kurdish push to retake the city of Sarrin from ISIS, resulted in the deaths of 19 YPG and northward of 80 ISIS combatants in addition to their complete expulsion from the region. The Battle of Al-Hasakah saw a similar outcome, with a Kurdish counter-offensive to take the town closing with ISIS suffering massive losses and outright fleeing Al-Hasakah. Dozens of Kurds fell along with slightly over 100 Syrian government soldiers, while ISIS lost an estimated 300-400 militants. In addition, ISIS executed over 90 of its own fighters for running from the Kurdish assault, pushing ISIS’ probable fatalities closer to 500. Beyond the human loss, both cities represented strategically pivotal locales whose severance from ISIS' holding sabotaged their supply lines. This lopsided death toll and inability to defend key terrain has been the cornerstone of ISIS’ battlefield performance over the past four months, an ongoing chronicle of failure that shows no sign of reversing.
The Kurds have long been forced into combat situations where they’re both outnumbered and outgunned. It’s practically their trademark as a fighting force, and they’ve become adept at turning lesser numbers into a point of tactical leverage. They also field some of the most well-trained and battle-hardened militias in the entire region, groups whose martial doctrine is based primarily upon being able to hold the line under any circumstances and expertly maneuver local terrain. Recent Kurdish victories have allowed them to capture massive stretches of territory and further secure their homeland, which is nothing short of ominous for ISIS militants in northern Syria.
One of the most illuminating stories about the performance and training of Kurdish YPG fighters came from, of all places, The Wall Street Journal. The overwrought brooding about their militias being “Marxists” aside (this is still a Murdoch rag after all, and predictably tainted by that myopic, provincialist worldview), the piece does a fine job of noting the exceptional doctrine and command training instilled in Kurdish guerillas. On principle, they are not allowed to carry on romantic relationships, they live fiercely austere lives, are constantly on the move, and sustain a martial culture that emphasizes abandoning personal identity and never speaking of their pre-military life. All fighters take a distinct nom de guerre that replaces their birth name, and hold the survival of their unit as paramount above all else. In the words of a young Kurdish woman whose unit once routed a more heavily armed Iranian force, “[The Iranians] were thinking about their families, their children, their lives, how they shouldn’t die… For us, when we join the PKK, we abandon our lives.”
To quote another Kurdish guerilla from the Wall Street Journal story, “We are not fighting just for ourselves… If any Kurd fights only for their own family, we will never have our own Kurdistan.”
That’s staggering. It requires a mental toughness and a single-minded determination that’s nearly unmatched in the greater Middle East. Arabs and their ethnic neighbors are often deeply traditional, lineage-oriented folk. Daughters are shuffled into marriage as soon as possible, clan ties are rigidly observed, and the concept of abandoning one’s hometown and family is cultural anathema. In turn, this means the various Kurdish militias are able to sustain a unique specie of martial discipline and flexibility. It also provides them with exceptional combat endurance and safeguards against war fatigue in a way no other local fighting force can parallel.
Let me lay this out plainly - ISIS are not badasses. They are not tough, they are not smart, and they are not disciplined. They are reckless and overaggressive, and theatrical in their sadism. That makes them terrifying if you happen to be a demoralized Iraqi National Army cadet, or if you’re an unarmed and peaceful Shia civilian or (God help you) a Yazidi. However, if the fighter you’re up against is a war-hardened Kurdish woman who’s been on the march for years, it makes you look exactly like what you are - a 23 year old kid from Belgium who misses video games and internet porn.
The massacre of civilians and brutalization of the innocent is not a sign of intelligence nor martial strength. Wracking up a high death toll from defeats of a poorly trained pseudo-military like the Iraqi National Army does not indicate your prowess - it merely speaks to the weakness of your opponent. It does not signify smart operations or tactical finesse. It signifies that you’ve won the consolation prize at Jihadi Militant Amateur Hour.
To lay out a small anecdote detailing how bush league many of ISIS’ fighters are - there have been instances of young ISIS militants tweeting about sneaking McDonalds into Iraq and Syria to snack on during their leisure time. This is child’s play, the nonchalant, oblivious behavior of war tourists who’ve never received doctrine training nor seen a day of combat before in their lives. It’s as if they wanted something greasy to chow down on in the middle of a prolonged Call of Duty session, and it’s clear many of these kids have far more experience playing video games than holding a rifle.
ISIS’ foreign recruitment is propelled not by a sense of patriotism and localized self-defense as is the case with the Kurds, but rather by a deranged and oddly modern form of digital marketing and branding that speaks to the sociopathic wish fulfillment of not-particularly-bright young initiates. ISIS sells fantasy, plain and simple. The fantasy of subjugating the terrified, and strolling among cowed natives while brandishing heavy weaponry. The sick, misogynist fantasy of sexual plunder and rape. And the obnoxious male-empowerment fantasy of pursuing some vague image of “respect” and “power” and all sorts of other testosterone-addled chimeras that very young men have given far too much credence since the dawn of time. The sort of things that are the emotional equivalent of a Scarface poster.
Looking these over, it’s no surprise that ISIS’ bloviating has been uniquely appealing to the more shiftless sons of the world’s Sunni middle class. These are the aspirations of a particularly deluded swath of semi-privileged kids who spent their teenage years dabbling in drugs or trying to launch a rap career. But they’d have no appeal for impoverished, hardbitten kids who’ve been fighting for their survival since adolescence. In so few words, the hardscrabble and insular tribalists of the greater Middle East rarely have the time for that nonsense, let alone the money. It's all a very modern enterprise.
Which brings me back to a figure who’s been deservedly forgotten - Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary. A British-born son of Egyptian immigrants raised in the comfortable middle-class suburb of Maide Vale, Bary initially made a name for himself as "L Jinny" - an aspiring hip-hop artist in London’s grime scene. His music focused on the usual tropes of lyrical authenticity and good weed (complete with shoutouts to Hennessy), before making a sharp turn into more conservative subject matter that coincided with his apparent radicalization. Bary made his way to Syria in early 2014 with the intent of enlisting alongside local insurgents in their fight against president Bashar al-Assad. Eventually signing up with ISIS, Bary began spewing the typical nouveau-jihadi social media noisemaking - tweeting threats of violence against the West and vowing he’d one day return to England and decapitate the kuffars.
This all came to a screeching halt in summer 2015, when Bary’s social media accounts went dark and reports rolled in that he’d deserted ISIS. He’s apparently been on the run in Turkey, worn down and disillusioned by the bleak realities of life in a war zone and the homicidal absolutism of ISIS’ most deranged hardliners. He’s one of numerous British jihadis who have fled combat and scurried away to Turkey - a pattern that has become so common that ISIS now makes open practice of summary executing deserters. Which is a fate he thoroughly deserves.
This is a microcosmic example of why ISIS hasn't yet and won't ever make much of a dent against the Kurds or the non-Sunni territory in Iraq and Syria. It’s also why they’re only effective in circumstances of disarray. ISIS is an artificial construction, a martial Frankenstein's monster made from a string of roughly cobbled nationalities ranging from hardened Chechen veterans to soft, middle-class boys from the Gulf Coast states and Europe. The desertion rate from ISIS is staggering, to the point where European states are having to formulate entire legal paradigms for processing the boys who somehow manage to jump ship and crawl back home (which ignores the potentially greater figure of young men who are killed attempting to desert). The 90+ ISIS militants mentioned earlier who ran in fear from the Kurdish assault in Al-Hasakah and were executed under their commander's orders were overwhelmingly foreign nationals.
You know what the desertion rate is from the Kurdish YPG? It would be an insulting question to ask any of them directly. These folks don’t spook, and they’re proud of it. The Kurds are a good people and very loyal to their own, but they're a steely, ferocious bunch when confronted.
And that’s the killer, if you’ll pardon the phrase. When ISIS attempted to siege the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane in 2014, the Kurds knew good and well that surrender or negotiation would hold no cachet with the newfangled desert raiders shrieking at their doorstep. So they had no choice but to fight on, defending their homeland and their people. They grabbed every available weapon and tactical advantage they could improvise, and stood their ground. Not a single YPG or YPJ fighter deserted, none of them flinched, and ISIS had no choice but to engage the Kurds in a prolonged, grueling firefight. Bombarded by U.S. airstrikes and unable to outmaneuver the superior training and discipline of the Kurdish militias, ISIS was forced to turn around and drag themselves away from Kobane in January 2015 after sustaining heavy losses. There was, pragmatically speaking, no way for ISIS and their battalions of overexcited amateurs to circumvent what they came up against.
There was a massive gulf in ISIS casualty rates against those sustained by the Kurdish YPG/YPJ. ISIS is estimated to have lost up to 4,000 fighters in skirmishes with the Kurds, and an additional 1,000 from coalition airstrikes. Various estimates of the troop volume on each side place the Kurds as being outnumbered by ISIS 3 to 1. But why, exactly, did the Kurds so thoroughly decimate ISIS despite lesser numbers and armaments? To quote an excellent report from www.terrorism-info.org:
“The main cause of the defeat was ISIS's difficulty in sustaining extended
fighting in an urban setting against trained, highly-motivated Kurdish forces
who were intimately familiar with the terrain and determined to defend it.”
There it is, in so few words - the Kurds are an exceptionally disciplined, cohesive force with a deep sense of national pride and a hardened resolve to defend their homeland. ISIS has absolutely none of that.
One of the most illuminating anecdotes from the career of American general William Tecumseh Sherman was his practice of constructing regiments from fiercely loyal veterans, soldiers who’d fought together and persisted through multiple engagements under his command. This produced some of the most dedicated, seasoned soldiers of the entire Civil War, and his regulars were able to sustain a pattern of resolute victory unmatched by any other force in the conflict. Soldiers with a unified background, who’ve long fought under a single commander and with the same compatriots, end up being some of the bravest and most determined recruits you’ll ever encounter. They are, pound-for-pound, some of the most valuable combatants a given army can deploy.
ISIS abides by the near inverse of this process. An army built from cycling in combat neophytes will inevitably suffer inefficiency. It produces some of the weakest combat value per soldier of almost any conceivable manpower strategy, and is only useful when you have the element of surprise - or when your fighters aren’t required to do all that much in the way of actual fighting.
ISIS is skilled at barreling into areas of weakness and exacerbating power vacuums, but practically everything about how they handle their operations is detrimental to tactical persistence. Nothing about their construction as a command force suggests a capacity for longevity, at least in terms of capturing territory and warding off attacks. As I’d noted before, even ISIS’ internal command structure is haphazard and patchwork. There’s a clear split between jihadi extremists and exiles from Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, and those two cadres have radically different backgrounds and interests. This partnership may have been useful for cobbling together a fleshed-out command structure in record time, and doing so seemingly out of nowhere. But it’s about as cohesive and stable as their army itself, which forces Libyans to fight alongside pampered Saudi boys in a territory that’s completely unfamiliar to both.
This makes them, on balance, about as effective as any other upstart jihadi group in the region, and means they might be able to hold their own against the increasingly worn down Syrian Army forces. But the Kurds haven’t budged, and have made swift, lacerating gouges into ISIS’ territory - being particularly ruthless in their severing of ISIS’ Syrian supply lines. It’s also clear that the persistent American bombing campaign has made ISIS skittish and apprehensive about executing abrupt moves. Which is particularly damning, because abrupt moves were ISIS’ only major asset aside from a near-endless supply of overeager suicide bombers. And as far as their reserve of expendables is concerned, one of the major reasons western recruits cite for deserting ISIS is a haunting fear of air raids.
Many of the post-adolescent kids who leave their countries to fight with ISIS are motivated by a desire to construct their own narrative and attempt to turn their jihadi fantasies into some kind of reality. It's the impulse that compels them to create those theatrical, yammering social media profiles complete with staged photos of themselves with kalashnikovs and keffiyehs. They're thoroughly immersed in the juvenile play-acting of the whole exercise, and it's what managed to lure so many of them during ISIS' seeming rise in 2014. The prospect of turning yourself into some kind of imagined protagonist is enormously appealing when you're a loser. But mass conflict has an overpowering will of its own, and the merciless vagaries of war don't cater to the individual fantasies of untrained war tourists. Getting randomly vaporized in an airstrike is the peak definition of a senseless death. It is quite literally meaningless, and renders your life meaningless. There's nothing more ignominious than being turned into shredded viscera from afar, and these deaths continues to shatter the delusions of a broad swath of ISIS' foreign recruits.
As a sidenote - some of ISIS' operatives are so blindingly stupid that they've put photos on social media that allowed the U.S. Air Force to pinpoint their location and blow them sky-high. I'll just leave that there, as I doubt further analysis is necessary.
This is why it might very well make little difference if ISIS recuperates the foreign fighters (or even local ones) lost. The very structure of the organization and nature of the Syrian and Iraqi conflict means that foreign recruits offer little combat value and are prone to rapid demoralization. As has been the case for months, ISIS is hunkered down in Sunni-friendly territory and isn't going anywhere else. And to return to the recently captured Syrian city of Palmyra, it's effectively a cultural center - not a military one. ISIS can brutalize Palmyra's citizens and destroy its ancient sites, but in tactical terms those amount to little more than the usual sadistic jihadi tantrums. They shock and outrage, but they don't create a foothold.
ISIS has effectively reached a stalemate, bleeding themselves against other jihadi groups while getting repeatedly pummeled by the Kurds. We could well be approaching the “degrade” vector of the “degrade and destroy” plan that the Obama administration so clearly hoped for. There’s something uniquely harrowing about being targeting by an aerial bombing, and witnessing the earth around you immolate as an unseen enemy howls overhead. It stokes a distinct specie of fear and helpless rage, and can shatter the will to fight. A jihadi group that gloats obsessively about its inevitable victory tends to look pathetic and doomed - rather than intimidating and unstoppable - when they’re shrinking defensively into their own territory. And that pattern is fundamentally destructive to ISIS’ recruitment efforts and PR offensive. Persistence and discipline is what ultimately wins campaigns, and there’s none of that to be found when you’re a group of demoralized irregulars trapped in an unfamiliar land, growing increasingly terrified of the sky itself.
Credit for Header Image - Flickr Creative Commons
You can follow me on Twitter @AdamPattersonDC