Tallying ISIS' Odds of Survival
Header photo of Kurdish YPG returning victorious against ISIS. Taken in Rojava.
Short answer: they're not looking great. Or rather they are, because ISIS is spiraling.
The deathly seriousness with which the anglophone media took ISIS could look borderline embarrassing in retrospect. There’s been some very ponderous brow-furrowing about what makes ISIS tick and what their rise means about the world at large, and lots of that inane chihuahua-yapping from reactionary morons in the U.S. who pin the emergence of ISIS onto something innately deranged about muslims as a whole. The latter is especially rich, because that same faction was rattling their toy sabers over invading Iraq in the early aughts - which is the primary factor that enabled the rise of ISIS and insurgent jihadism in the first place. But most diehard neocons have the historical memory of a goldfish, which is probably how they live with themselves.
Don’t get me wrong - the suffering of the Iraqis and Syrians and the horrific persecution of the Yazidis in particular are tragic and harrowing. But in terms of their stature as a martial power, ISIS has proven themselves to be a pathetic group of slapstick jihadis. Their rise might be one of the most illusory threats I’ve seen emerge during my lifetime thus far. They’ve proven little more than a hologram in the long run, a mouse crouched next to a megaphone attempting to growl like a tiger.
As I noted in a prior article, ISIS are as prone to tactical failure as they are to spouting grandiose self-promotion. Their spokesmen are known for making pseudo-macho boasts like "we love death as much as you kuffar love life". Which is fortunate, because if anything ISIS is rather skilled at dying. Territorial loss and high fatality counts have come to define their battlefield performance in the latter half of 2015.
There was an interesting piece from VICE News recently that broached the possibility that ISIS might “win”. While this was eye-catching clickbait phrasing that I can’t much blame them for, the core question was not if ISIS would “win” in terms of the fantastical, continent-subjugating designs they were blathering about in 2014, but in terms of them not getting completely obliterated. This is more of a consolation prize than a triumph, and the piece questioned whether or not they’d score a sort of marginal victory if they managed to barricade themselves within their territory and not get pushed out.
This thesis requires a good degree of presumption and singular focus on the Sunni insurgency in Iraq to pass muster, but it does note that ISIS has fallen into a phase of relative defensiveness and territorial guard. It also manages to highlight, if only by implication, that the one thing that enabled their rise is the same thing that’s allowing them to limp along - the capacity for middling insurgent armies to achieve degrees of illusory prominence in the midst of civil instability.
Almost all modern conflicts are asymmetrical/insurgent conflicts, and tend to emerge whenever there’s a crack in the stability of today’s uniquely empowered nation-states. This tendency for modern war to manifest as irregular combat is probably the main reason why America has stumbled so consistently in our military engagements within the past half-century. The only war we’ve decisively won during that span of time was the first Gulf War, which involved intervention against the standing armies of Saddam Hussein. The United States is very skilled at engaging nation-states, and our military culture is almost exclusively geared toward some form of conventional warfare. Any army that can be fought to the point where their leadership surrenders or is otherwise ousted is an opponent we can reliably defeat. It’s why we were so quick and thorough in wiping out Saddam Hussein’s martial infrastructure when the Iraqi Baathist state was intact during the initial invasion, and why we were persistently trounced during the insurgent conflict that followed from 2004-2011. The engagement in Iraq pivoted sharply from state-to-state to asymmetrical conflict, and we were immediately out of our depth when the second phase hit - one that was prolonged, brutal, and costly. Much like another war that shall go unnamed but involved heavy doses of napalm and atrocities.
That’s the intrinsic nature of insurgent conflict - if you don’t have a standing government to topple, you’re merely fighting an amorphous band of guerrillas or irregulars who you often can’t identify and are more interested in wearing you down than defending national sovereignty. ISIS is an insurgent army on the offensive, one that has marauded in the midst of a sprawling guerrilla war. They’re also in the awkward place of attempting the inverse of what the early Iraqi insurgency executed - transforming from an insurgent army into some kind of functioning state.
It’s an eccentric gambit to pull off. While it’s not uncommon for insurgent armies to attempt a coup d’etat within a standing confederation and put their warlord on the throne, we rarely see an insurgent army try to conquer their way into an entirely new state - something that necessitates transforming into a conventional army of sorts. To render in technical, academic terms, ISIS sucks at it.
Insurgent armies can be very effective when they blend into the local population or harass an occupying force. The various insurgents who fought U.S. forces following the toppling of Saddam inflicted a heavy number of casualties as well as jarred the American soldiers who often couldn’t tell the difference between an unarmed local and one intent on violence. Especially since the only major difference between those two was whether or not he was holding a kalashnikov at the time.
ISIS rose from the furor of the Iraqi insurgency, and merged embittered Sunni hardliners with former commanders from Saddam Hussein’s security services. As military analyst John Dolan (pen name Gary Brecher) pointed out with typical prescience back in 2014, what we’ve witnessed in Iraq is a rational, rather typical process when viewed in its totality. The Shia partition in Iraq has sequestered itself and leaned toward Iran, the Kurds in the north have fortified their autonomy, and the Sunni hinterlands to the west have been left neglected and ripe for the taking. All that it required was (in some cases quite literally) walking into town. Being expelled from the developed, urban areas around Baghdad left Iraq's Saddam-favored Sunni Arabs seething with resentment and a desire for reprisal. A Sunni militia like ISIS kicking out or massacring the occupying Shia in the heavily Sunni countryside was a near inevitability, especially considering how poorly trained the government-funded Shia forces were. In effect, Iraq broke apart quite cleanly along sectarian lines and ISIS snatched up the Sunni tribal lands. The part of Iraq that ISIS most thoroughly controls - Anbar Province - is said to have fallen out of the Shia government's control as early as 2006.
From there ISIS spread northward from their new holdings in Iraq into southern and central Syria, snatching up Sunni territory that was all but abandoned by Bashar al-Assad's Shia forces. Assad's Shia loyalists were caught in prolonged firefights over the wealthy, densely developed urban areas to the west - the genuinely valuable terrain that constitutes the metropolitan backbone of the Syrian state.
There's nothing unusual or exceptional about the Iraqi insurgency. The rise of ISIS was logical and predictable, almost boring in its replication of old paradigms. ISIS are warlords and brigands who burst into a power vacuum of severe political and military fragility and exploited the apparent weakness for momentary gain. It's a pattern as old as warfare itself. ISIS will die slowly suffocated and picked apart by more powerful elements around it, a fate shared by an ignominious catalogue of shortsighted plunderers long relegated to the crematorium of history.
The turning point that stopped ISIS’ rapid expansion dead in its tracks was when they hit Kurdish territory in northern Syria. ISIS attempted to roll out their typical dimestore blitzkrieg against the Kurdish city of Kobane in Sepetmber 2014, a venture which didn’t exactly work in their favor. This overreach, more than any other event, marked an unceremonious end to ISIS’ smash-and-grab campaign of charging into poorly defended towns throughout western Iraq and central Syria. It was a defeat so thorough and unforgiving that a report from Terrorism-Info.org dubbed it "the worst blow dealt to ISIS" thus far in its existence.
One of the most telling anecdotes, one that seems to nail the precise moment at which ISIS began its slow decline, is when a senior ISIS commander remarked well into the siege of Kobane that the jihadis expected to take the city within days and were demoralized by the Kurds' "fierce resistance". That’s telling, piercingly so. The gist of what he was getting at is, “Well, shit. I didn’t expect us to actually have to fight.” If ISIS harbored any serious ambitions of overtaking its non-Sunni Arab neighbors, they would have to become adept at the harsh, grinding necessities of a prolonged campaign. Of course, this would also mandate resolute discipline and the development of strong martial doctrine, something that’s inimical to ISIS’ frenetic, uncoordinated fighting style.
The Kurds have a reputation as an iron-willed people - tough and stoic in a way that speaks to their survival against generations of brutal persecution. And the Syrian Kurdish YPG/YPJ are often held as among the best light infantry in the entire Middle East. But the Kurds are just people, after all, not superhuman, and all they did was stand their ground with determination and courage. You know what ISIS did in response? They fled, basically. It’s something they keep doing and have picked up as a rather reliable habit when fighting turns sour, a tendency that's seemed to accelerate in recent weeks.
As a sidenote - there were numerous incidents from October alone of ISIS fighters basically losing their nerve and beating a rapid retreat from the combat lines. Many of these happen in skirmishes with the Syrian Kurds, but it’s a pattern that’s emerging in Iraq as well. I’ll return more to this later, but it’s one mounting indication that ISIS is fraying around the edges.
To chew over the logistics of the Kobane siege, ISIS barreled into Kurdish territory with heavy armaments, tanks, war vehicles of every stripe, even anti-aircraft munitions. State-of-the-art stuff they'd stolen from the caches America left behind. The Kurds were stocked with only small reserves of light arms - primarily kalashnikovs, sniper rifles, and antitank RPGs. The sort of things you can move with quickly and slip through urban corridors. ISIS may have been radically overstocked with firepower and heavy armaments compared to the Kurds, but in the end of the day the most powerful weapon an army can wield is morale, discipline, and the will to fight. The cracks in ISIS’ facade came when they couldn’t rely on fear and displays of big guns to intimidate their opponents, and were forced to fall back on the primary factors that determine the outcome of urban warfare - combat expertise and sheer resolve.
The Kurds held out for over four months, getting pushed back into the deeper recesses of the city. It was an arduous process that required almost unimaginable courage and valor. There was even an incident where a Kurdish battalion leader strapped herself with explosives and barreled right into an ISIS position, a sacrifice that undoubtedly turned the firefight and saved many of those under her command. That is what genuine martyrdom looks like - an act that's tragic, selfless, and noble all at once.
The Kurds slowly bled ISIS, relying on a consistent string of ambushes and guile in small firefights to wear the jihadis down. After facing bombardments from U.S. warplanes and a wave of Kurdish reinforcements, ISIS began to break against an increasingly aggressive Kurdish pushback. Their soldiers started falling in droves, and ISIS eventually lost the will to fight any further. On January 26th, 2015, they booked it.
The demoralization effect throughout ISIS was jarring up and down the line - they threw every martial resource they had against the Kurds in Kobane and still limped away with far greater casualties. For those of us who were watching from afar, the Kurdish resistance in Kobane was a singular act of heroism in the midst of a nightmarish war. The Syrian Kurds are an easy people to admire - tough and resourceful, but also honorable and anti-sectarian. The latter is uniquely impressive considering the fuel propelling so much of the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars has been sectarian rage alone.
ISIS and their various affiliates have a considerable history of getting beaten up and down the Levant, whipped bloody and humiliated by forces who actually take this whole “waging war” business seriously. Their constant defeats against the brave, unyielding Kurds are the most widely broadcasted and morally clean. The Syrian Kurds have a radical feminist streak that’s practically unheard of in the greater Middle East. They deploy entire battalions of women as light infantry in their YPJ units, and they’re a courageous, determined bunch. There’s something uniquely satisfying in watching mouth-breathing rape aficionados like ISIS get routed by women guerillas. It’s the sort of on-the-nose poetic justice you rarely see in something as senseless and horrible as insurgent warfare.
But the Kurds aren’t the only ones who’ve won decisive victories against ISIS. They’re easily the most admirable, but the shadier elements in Hezbollah have a history of showing up ISIS on the opposite end of Syria.
The whole western front in Syria seems consistently overlooked by American broadcasters. If the war in Syria was determined solely by media coverage, ISIS would have overpowered every other faction in the region sometime in summer 2014. But the situation on the ground remains as fraught and complex as ever despite the imbalanced fixation on ISIS, with a large portion of the anti-Assad opposition who are broadly referred to as “moderate rebels” still holding their own.
There was another peripheral conflict that didn’t catch the attention of the anglophone press, unsurprisingly so. It was Hezbollah’s complete and unforgiving victory over ISIS in southwestern Syria. It’s understandable that this story wouldn’t have gained much traction in the American media in particular, largely because Hezbollah are Iranian-backed and openly hostile toward both the United States and our allies in the Middle East. But the fact remains that Hezbollah are an exceptionally well-trained and professional group, even if they're in service to Tehran and their various Shia allies.
The incident I’m referring to is the Qalamoun Offensive. Hezbollah, in so few words, swept through in summer 2014 and unceremoniously expelled ISIS and associated jihadi factions from Syria's Qalamoun Mountains. All local towns in the region were recaptured by Assad loyalists under the guidance of Hezbollah, with ISIS and their affiliates having to scatter and hide throughout the nearby hills after suffering heavy casualties. All attempts on the part of the nearby jihadis to retake terrain were quickly rebuffed and put down with a hitman’s cold efficiency. Hezbollah more or less slammed down their first and eradicated ISIS as you might a bothersome infestation.
To take a more regional scope, Hezbollah reserves some of its strongest animosity for Israel (the “Zionist State” as they call it), and those two went to war not too far back. They basically fought Israel - one of the most well-armed states in the region - to a draw in the 2006 Lebanon War. Unable to route Hezbollah on the ground, Israeli forces retreated and used airstrikes to deliberately flatten infrastructure all across Lebanon in reprisal. Israel, a nation that has by necessity needed to become sharply astute with threat assessment and defense pragmatics, has persistently focused its firepower on Hezbollah ever since. Israel’s attitude toward localized Sunni militias falls more along the lines of disinterested contempt - ISIS/Al Nusra were effectively parked in the neighboring Golan Heights without any flack from the IDF for months on end. These Sunni Arab militias are not a particularly menacing crew if you’re a well-defended sovereign nation. But Israel remains so wary of Hezbollah that they’ve taken the opportunity to throw airstrikes at Hezbollah in Syria now that the organization is fighting in the open - all of this despite Hezbollah not currently directing overt aggression at Israel.
Though the two factions couldn’t be more different, Israel’s opportunist bombings against Hezbollah are oddly similar to Erdogan ordering airstrikes against Kurdish guerrillas in Syria. Turkey is worried the Kurds will become powerful and strong by fortifying a de facto state in north Syria, which would only further the ambitions of Kurdish secessionists on the Turkish side of the border. This situation has made Erdogan so neurotic he’s jumping at any opportunity to undermine the Kurdish YPG/YPJ. Turkey generally makes little more than impotent, feint-like airstrikes against ISIS when they attack them at all, which points back to the fact that the power players in the region consider ISIS nowhere near an existential threat.
To lay out something telling, Turkey has set up armed observations posts on their border overlooking the Kurdish position near ISIS territory. The Kurds have made clear their intent to cut across the remaining expanse near Turkey and completely cut away ISIS from the Turkey/Syria border and sever ISIS’ supply lines. In response, Turkey has made a reflexive policy of shelling the Kurds whenever they get too close. If ISIS were in fact some terrifying threat, you think Turkey would be overjoyed the Kurds want to push them from the Turkish border. Except, in effect, Turkey is now defending ISIS from the Kurds. Chew on that one for a bit. It says far, far too much on multiple levels.
To turn back to the Shia axis - Qassem Solemeini, the mastermind behind Iran’s Quds force and ally of Bashar al-Assad, has a reputation as patient, methodical, and fiercely intelligent. The various militias and cells to which he provides logistical support tend to reflect this, and Hezbollah in Lebanon became experts at the calculated application of targeted violence - launching operations that produced disproportionate tactical payoff.
Former CIA case officer Robert Baer wrote in The Perfect Kill, his book on political assassination, that Hezbollah’s persistent success came from this surgical yet harrowing application of abrupt force. Their most notorious stretch of terror operations involved a string of jarring, unforeseen attacks against American personnel in Beirut throughout the early '80s. They bombed the U.S. Marine barracks, bombed the local CIA headquarters, and even kidnapped and murdered the local CIA station chief. All of these were refined, precise, and planned to leave little backtrace but scare the living hell out of their designated target. And it worked, frankly. The CIA scuttled much of its local bureaucracy and left deep spooks like Baer to squat quietly in Beirut's slums just so they could try to get any scope on what the hell Hezbollah was doing. The mastermind behind the attacks - a shadowy figure known as Hajj Radwan - remained effectively untouched for 25 years until Israeli intelligence blew him up with a car bomb in Damascus.
Hajj Radwan - Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.
The difficult fact is that Hezbollah remains an extremely resilient organization, one that can switch from terror operations to guerrilla warfare with ease and succeed at both. Hezbollah and Iran recently announced plans to heavily reinforce Assad loyalists in Syria, a development that will give them an edge in any future engagements with the jihadis. ISIS and their foreign recruits tend to suffer from severe casualty rates against more skilled forces like Hezbollah, with a story from CounterPunch.org quoting a Syrian source as stating:
"Imported Jihadis die in high numbers because they ignore battlefield realities. Their average number of dead in any given firefight over the past two years is estimated to be approximately five times the number of Hezbollah casualties, three times the number of PFLI fighters and twice the number of casualties than the regular Syrian army.”
ISIS takes the near-opposite of the methodology pioneered by Qassem Solemeini and his Quds Force cadre, and they’d be embarrassed to learn that a bunch of Shia rafida are smarter, more effective operatives. Where I’m going with this is that ISIS is one force surrounded by many others, some of whom not only have years of explicit state backing but are shrewd and powerful in a way the rabble in ISIS resolutely aren’t. Hezbollah are far more cunning and measured than ISIS, who often waste their energy on useless, bloody ventures like sectarian massacres and spastic rampages.
Despite the overrating of their western-friendliness and diplomatic reliability, the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been holding strong in Syria - so strong that Russia’s recent bombing campaign seems predicated on pushing them back to safeguard Assad. ISIS has engaged in relatively limited combat against Assad loyalists on certain fronts, and there’ve been questions around whether or not the two factions have tried to minimize hostilities so as to focus on the FSA as their shared enemy. This speaks to the relative intractability of local engagements against the FSA, who’ve been stubbornly holding onto Syria’s densest urban areas throughout the civil war. ISIS currently occupies the desert badlands in Syria and Iraq, and maps of their ostensible terrain can be highly misleading.
Syrian civil war territory map licensed under GFDL via Commons.
While the gray in the above map represents all Syrian territory onto which ISIS lays claim, just a fractional amount of that is in any way developed or even livable. Only small, winding stretches of road and local towns are in any sense occupied (marked by the black dots). These supply lines - rather spindly, fragile ones at that - tightly hug the Euphrates river along that narrow vein to the east. The vast remainder of surrounding terrain is flat, open desert, the sort of thing that one can rapidly blitz through in ATV’s but can’t in any real sense defend or even hold. It would be as if a local militia suddenly took over a small town in the middle of the Mojave, and all of a sudden newscasters were frantically reporting that a chunk of southern California was now in rebel hands. It is, much like ISIS’ military prowess, utterly illusory. As a crude estimate, around 75% of the territory ISIS claims to control in Syria is inhospitable wasteland.
I’ll reemphasize what I’ve laid out before - ISIS represents a menace to civilians, but they do not represent a genuine threat to nation-states and standing confederations. They are, in a rather marked sense, tightly bound by sectarian and national lines. They are a minor-league entrant in a proxy war that involves a rogue’s gallery of local players (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bashar Al-Assad, Iraq’s Shia Government, Iran) and foreign powers jostling to assert some kind of foothold (America and its allies, Russia). But as is the perennial tragedy of war, the true victims of any conflict are not the combatants, but the civilians. ISIS has relentlessly brutalized noncombatants within its holdings, a region that has little to no political or economic capital. The stretch of terrain they control constitutes the Sunni tribal badlands in Iraq and Syria, a territory that has been rendered effectively ungovernable.
This relative lack of genuine menace to standing political entities is part of the reason why ISIS has occupied territory on the Turkish border for months on end without any serious conflagration between the two. Turkey is tolerating ISIS’ presence, treating them as either an ignorable pest or enabling them as an antagonist against the Kurds. One does not “tolerate” a genuine martial threat. Considering ISIS’ stated ambitions to sweep through and rapidly conquer a stretch of territory spanning from Spain all the way to Chechnya and Iran, this has turned out to be one sad, disappointing little caliphate. It would be the equivalent of a militia rising up and declaring their intent to subjugate the United States, only to get stuck occupying North Dakota. I’m no scholar of Islam and its history, but something tells me the former ummah that ISIS wants to recapture consisted of more than the least valuable real estate in Syria.
In summary, ISIS seems to know good and well their odds are terrible against the surrounding factions. Their recent engagements have involved minor firefights against the Kurdish YPG and anti-Assad rebels in Syria and skirmishes with Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq - almost all of which ISIS has decidedly lost. ISIS also attempted to overtake the Syrian desert province of Deir Ezzor from Bashar al-Assad loyalists last month, but utterly failed while losing heavy amounts of fighters and equipment in the process. That’s why ISIS is keeping up with the deranged, Johnny Knoxville-style stunt executions they broadcast as loudly as possible. It’s at least a minor distraction from their fumbling campaigns, similar to how ISIS recorded a propaganda video in the middle of the siege of Kobane claiming the city was firmly in their hands not long before the Kurds unceremoniously pushed them from Kobane and expelled them from the surrounding canton.
Which leaves the question of how and if ISIS will be able to hold its standing territory. This one’s a bit trickier, if only because none of the nearby powers have much interest in claiming the Sunni heartland that spans from western Iraq into central Syria. The overall death toll from the Syrian civil war has been staggering, with estimates placing over 330,000 having been killed as of August 2015 - an expanse of lives abruptly extinguished like a legion of candles in the darkness. And there’s no justice, no recompense, just the harrowing psychic aftershocks inflicted on a generation of traumatized survivors, forced to trudge weary into alien countries that view them as detritus. The sheer psychic toll that volume of loss takes on the human landscape is more harrowing than any damage to infrastructure, even the entire razing of a city. Syria is a land of ghosts now, either lives vacated or innocents murdered countless and uncared for.
The total number of refugees is just as sobering, with various estimates placing the number of Syrian nationals who’ve fled the country at nearly 4.3 million. The population of Syria was estimated at around 22 million in 2011, with roughly one in five citizens having been killed or fleeing the country outright since the outbreak of widespread conflict. The collective disappearance of over 20% of your population is a cataclysm that’s hard to grasp the sheer enormity of, but to render it in the most reductive terms - Syria is not going to govern nor function like it did before. Compounded with the endemic levels of sectarian and tribal violence, there’s no returning to any semblance of the old order. This right here represents the true cruelty and tragedy of the Syrian civil war, something far more apocalyptic and enduring than the presence of a single reckless and amateurish faction within it.
Which leaves ISIS, as ever, hunkered down along the Euphrates in Syria and throughout Sunni tribal country in western Iraq. I’ll go ahead and make the not-particularly-bold prediction that ISIS’ days as any sort of conquering army are thoroughly over. Their general esprit de corps is apparently lousy, which seems to have been a mounting trend ever since ISIS brigades allegedly turned on each other in suspicion and rage after retreating from Kobane. As I mentioned earlier, ISIS tried and fumbled at the gambit of turning from an insurgent presence into a conquering army. They’re now forced to rearrange everything in an attempt to become an entrenched, defensive occupier. Despite the best efforts of ISIS officers culled from Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services, these fools seem to have no idea what the hell they’re doing.
Beyond this, ISIS hasn’t much endeared themselves to the locals. Hearts and minds are a big deal when you're an insurgent army, and the moment you lose those is the moment Death writes you down in his rolodex. As time has gone on, reports have rolled out about widespread hatred of ISIS’ forceful recruitment of teenage boys in their occupied territories. If there’s one element that might have kept ISIS going, it was the simmering resentment of local Sunni against the Shia governments in Iraq and Syria. But if you make yourself even more despised than the previous enemy number one, it makes you very, very easy to betray. Conservative Sunni hold familial protocol as sacrosanct, and forced violations of their insular norms is a surefire way to provoke resistance. ISIS seems very jumpy about being sold out, with October marked by the widespread murder of suspected collaborators throughout their holdings.
Which means one of two things - either ISIS is so shaken up and paranoid they’re basically killing at random, or the people under their occupation loathe them with such intensity that they’re jumping at every opportunity to collaborate with ISIS’ enemies, even at serious risk of their lives. Or, even more likely, a combination of both that feeds upon itself in a spiraling pattern that further antagonizes the locals and steels their sense of resistance while incrementally undermining ISIS.
In a particularly telling anecdote, three ISIS recruits deserted last month and headed to the nearest barricade held by Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, pleading to be taken in while citing fear of starvation and certain death. One of the defectors also told Kurdish reporters that "there is no trust within the organization" and those suspected of collaborating with enemy factions are killed on the spot. In addition to these apprehensions, many ISIS recruits have abandoned the organization out of horror and disgust at the abuse of fellow muslims. It's my prediction that the ensuing months will see increasing defections and surrenders, a pattern that's already been on the rise since the summer. At the start of November, Iraqi Kurdish forces reported a wave of at least 19 ISIS militants had fled their positions and surrendered to them over the previous weekend alone - raising the number of ISIS fighters who've surrendered to the Peshmerga well above 100 thus far in 2015.
To stick to October alone, there were also multiple known incidents of ISIS recruits being executed while attempting to desert. ISIS reportedly captured and killed 8 recruits trying to flee from Syria into Turkey in early October, an incident that follows months of former ISIS fighters escaping through that same route. This, of course, is on top of ISIS' endearing habit of brutally executing fighters who retreat, which you figure would discourage eagerness to head to the front lines in the first place. Last month, ISIS reportedly executed 27 of its own fighters for attempting to flee a battle in Iraq's Kirkuk province. Which is still less than the 41 ISIS fighters executed under identical pretenses near Mosul the month before. Just another poorly considered practice that feeds into the self-sabotaging and spectacularly unintelligent nature of the organization as a whole.
While I was long wary about any commitment of American ground forces, there’s a Pentagon press release that went public at the time of writing which declared the commitment of U.S. special operatives to Syria. When ISIS was in the midst of their illusory ascent in 2014, this might have potentially galvanized their rank and file. And it still could, assuming America deployed a full-scope occupying infantry. But that doesn’t seem the case, with our spec ops reserves assigned only to bolster the efficacy of local forces against the jihadis and possibly execute surgical operations that further sabotage ISIS.
ISIS has been denied the dynamic, triumphant campaign that stood at the core of their moronic jihadi fantasies. This war has, in its unfolding timeline, turned into a procedural, incremental exercise - something for which ISIS seems particularly ill-suited. If one thing is toxic to jihadi morale, it’s disappointment. We’re talking big-scale disappointment that makes every promise of imagined conquest look like a jeering lie. Here ISIS lays, over a year after they burst onto the scene in 2014, boxed into their territory with wheels spinning. They’ve been trounced by the Kurds on all fronts - a group of people who’ve historically been a uniquely populous and resilient hill tribe, not a glowering empire. And while many American pundits have scoffed at the efficacy of aerial bombardment, prolonged and unrelenting airstrikes are excruciating to endure. Sure, bombers can’t occupy terrain, but they can destroy weapons depots, break up defensive positions, and decimate both retreating and advancing armies. When provided with adequate intelligence, they’re also very good at killing your leaders. It’s long been my contention that Obama is a more subtle and shrewd war president than is often recognized, and if anything it seems like his recent gambits have only nudged ISIS further into its frustrated, humiliating spiral.
The general state of affairs for ISIS since the close of this summer has been a bleak chronicle of death and failure, pierced through with heavy casualty counts, violent paranoia, battlefield defeats, and martial fratricide. It bears the distinct stamp of an organization beginning to consume itself. We're looking at the slow-motion downfall of a militia overrun with frantic brutality but so lacking in basic discipline and competence that it has no direction in which to successfully expend its aggression other than inward.
And this is how things play out, bit by bit, with yet another noisy group of opportunists and brigands dying the death of a thousand cuts. ISIS' end will probably be much like their pre-2013 genesis - unimpressive, slow-burning, and almost procedural in its familiarity. I wouldn't be surprised if whole battalions of ISIS' foot soldiers were to defect or outright surrender in Syria, especially if the Kurds and their allies cut closer to ISIS' de facto Syrian capital at Raqqa. In fact, Kurdish YPG made moves to break further into ISIS territory in Hasakeh province at the close of October. This operation, like most other YPG offenses against ISIS, appears to be inflicting heavy casualties on the jihadis. Except there's a new element to this push - it was coordinated closely with local Arab fighters as well.
If the Syrian forces opposing ISIS galvanize and make sincere moves toward the Sunni heartland, it's likely that ISIS will slowly peel away from the Euphrates. Iraq is a more complicated question, with their home turf bound to hold out longer than the satellite franchise to the northwest. This, ultimately, is where the decision will be made, and depends on how (if at all) the Sunni minority to the west can reconcile with the Shia government in Baghdad. This final piece is the damning part, because by any measure the sectarian loathing will far outlast ISIS in Iraq, even if the same factors temporarily propeled them along. Tribalistic rage of that nature is self-consuming, and frequently destroys the entities it spawns even as it outlives them.
Header photo taken from Flicker Creative Commons.
Adam Patterson can be reached by email at "napalmintheAM@gmail.com" or on Twitter @AdamPattersonDC.