by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
-- we must have a realistic view of the true scale of commitment required to defeat ISIS: namely, an extensive international presence on the ground to enforce a political settlement acceptable to all major actors and to assist a massive nation-rebuilding project.
The recent attacks in Paris carried out by the Islamic State have led to widespread speculation about a possible shift in strategy on the part of ISIS. Taken in conjunction with the downing of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai and the bombings in the predominantly Shia Dahiyeh suburbs of Beirut, it is argued that ISIS is lashing out at the "far enemy" as it comes under pressure on the home fronts in Iraq and Syria, such as its recent loss of control of Sinjar, a town that formed part of a key route connecting the de facto ISIS capitals of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
Further, Iranian-backed forces – including Lebanese Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Assad's army, backed by Russian airstrikes, were able to break the long-standing ISIS siege of Kweiris airbase to the east of Aleppo city despite ISIS mobilization calls in Aleppo province to counter the offensive. On a more general level, internal documents suggest that ISIS is facing problems of cohesion in its military ranks, as the General Supervisory Committee issued an amnesty for deserters last month, whereas the normal ruling for fleeing from battle without appropriate justification is execution.
The Paris attacks required extensive planning and procurement predating ISIS's latest setbacks.
In fact, Abdelhamid Abbaoud, a key figure in the Paris attacks, was openly flaunting his role in establishing cells to conduct attacks in Europe in an interview with ISIS's magazine Dabiq in February. If he was assigned a general role by the highest echelons of ISIS to conduct attacks in Europe, this assignment apparently took place almost a year ago.
Concerns regarding these networks have long been on the radar of Western intelligence services, and the fact the Paris attacks came to fruition represents a significant failure in detection more than anything else. The reason we have come to associate ISIS with lone wolf attacks rather than well-planned operations is because lone wolf attacks are usually harder to foresee and easier to carry out.
The fact the Paris attacks came to fruition represents a significant failure in detection.
As for the recent setbacks for ISIS within Iraq and Syria, they do not represent a decisive shift away from the overall reality of stalemate that was apparent months ago amid proclamations that ISIS was on the march and "winning," following the capture of Palmyra and Ramadi. Even now, ISIS has more recently made advances further west through the Homs desert with the capture of the town of Muhin from regime forces. In addition, there are still no effective ground forces to challenge ISIS control of the most important population centers of Raqqa and Mosul cities, as well as the majority of Deir az-Zor province and the towns of western Anbar province and eastern Aleppo province.
ISIS seeks to exploit and reinforce Muslim vs. non-Muslim divides in Western countries.
Looking foward to the question of responses to these attacks, it is tempting to look to the intense French airstrikes launched on Raqqa as the way forward. However, reports indicate that no major damage has been inflicted on ISIS military assets by these strikes as ISIS has learned to keep them out of the sight of coalition bombing. The U.S. has also decided to go after trucks carrying oil in ISIS territory in the belief that oil is the key lifeline for ISIS funding. Such a policy reflects a serious over-estimation of the contribution of oil to ISIS income, which actually relies far more on confiscation and taxation.
More airstrikes and tougher talk will not lead to the defeat of ISIS.
In short, one should have no illusions that simply intensifying airstrikes and more tough talk can lead to the defeat of ISIS. As before, we must have a realistic view of the true scale of commitment required to defeat ISIS: namely, an extensive international presence on the ground to enforce a political settlement acceptable to all major actors and to assist a massive nation-rebuilding project. Unless international consensus emerges for such an undertaking, one must not harbor pretenses about destroying ISIS.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.
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