The Next Round.
The ISIS caliphate had a population of 10 million people within its borders. It stretched across two countries, Iraq and Syria, and contained major towns and cities, oil fields, factories and dams and was roughly the size of Britain. But now ISIS has lost more than 99 percent of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. It has shrunk to a tiny pocket in Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province, with its fighters holed up in the village of Baghouz Al-Fawqani near the Iraqi border.
There is a growing perception among the people that these are the last days of the Islamic State but many analysts and even the US intelligence community warns that the group will continue to be a long-term threat. While the caliphate in physical terms is about to be extinguished, the extremist group still has thousands of fighters in its ranks in Iraq and Syria. IS forces have largely melted away from towns and villages in the conflict zone rather than confront advancing Iraqi and Syrian forces. No significant top leader of the ISIS has been captured or killed in recent offensives and this means that top ISIS leaders and strategists have left the areas uncontested and are preparing for the next phase of the war.
ISIS has its roots in insurgency. Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, its leaders have been waging an insurgency campaign against coalition forces in Iraq. Even with fewer resources at their disposal, now IS will be a deadly insurgent group as it takes much less resources to carry out terrorist/insurgent attacks rather than defending a territory. The insurgents were planning a long-term campaign for at least a couple of years, especially after losing Mosul. After the fall of the town, a group adopted the calculated strategy of withdrawing to conserve manpower and pivot away from holding territory to pursuing an all-out insurgency in the coming future. The reality is that since losing Mosul, the IS's most sizeable and symbolic territorial possession, the Islamic State has not fought to the last man and last bullet to maintain control of any other population centre.
Even more surprising was its retreat in areas long believed to be its strategic bases - the borderlands of Iraq and Syria and the Euphrates river valley, where it had experience fighting or operating for around a decade and where it remerged powerfully in 2014. The group has shifted its base to the desert and rural areas as rural and desert-based insurgency is no less important for them than urban warfare to deplete enemies, recruit fighters and lay the groundwork for a comeback.
The group has already stepped up hit-and-run attacks in towns it had lost. This tactic diverged from the group's tendency at the height of its expansion in 2014 to engage in conventional attacks, including attacks via convoys and heavy artillery barrage. The new tactics tend to involve small units attacking from behind enemy lines or through hasty raids. Reverting to the old insurgency and terror tactics enabled the Islamic State to penetrate otherwise well-secured areas. Previous attempts to attack them through conventional fighting units had failed, even while the group was at the height of its power.
This hit-and-run tactic also serves another very useful purpose: it demonstrates that nothing is out of reach for them, even if their ability to control territory plummets. It should be noted that ISIS is an adaptive and determined enemy. From an organization with a fixed headquarters it has phased towards a clandestine terrorist network dispersed throughout the region and when it spreads across the globe, it will be deadlier. The result of the transition will be that ISIS-perpetrated violence would be far less concentrated and more dispersed which will be hard to detect and control.
A part of the revised ISIS strategy is likely to include rejuvenated focus on planning and conducting spectacular attacks in the West in order to remain militarily relevant and to inspire followers globally. To adequately plan for the next phase of war, it is critical that the coalition forces fighting against the ISIS understand the variety of potential tactics undertaken by the group. A new strategy to counter ISIS should be formulated rather than a hasty announcement of the group's defeat. To fight a highly adaptive adversary like the ISIS, a new approach should have a different mix of tools, including military, intelligence, diplomatic, social and economic.
The toxic ideology of the ISIS can still affect an entire generation so the next campaign against the ISIS should also focus on eradicating it ideologically. An ideological defeat is a much tougher task because anti-extremism campaigns require patience and resilience. However, such measures offer long-term solutions as they tackle the root causes of radical ideologies. The United States and its allies have to understand that ideological defeat of the ISIS is as important as its military defeat. Only one phase of the war is over and the next one is about to come.