July 21, 2017


The Myth of ISIS's Strategic Brilliance (AYMENN AL-TAMIM, 7/21/17, THE ATLANTIC)

 It is certainly true that ISIS messaging over the past year or so has tried to address the group's contracting control of territory. Notable examples include the now-deceased spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani's speech released in May 2016, which mocked the idea that the loss of Mosul, Raqqa, and the Libyan city of Sirte would mean the end of the caliphate. Instead, Adnani argued, the only real defeat would come with the end of the will to keep fighting. An editorial in the ISIS newsletter al-Naba' in June 2016 reflected similar ideas to Adnani's speech.

In reality, though, this shift in messaging reflects damage control and a response to the overall tide turning against ISIS, not a stroke of genius in which ISIS strategists foresaw all of this, even at the height of the group's power. It is by no means evident that ISIS could have foreseen these losses back in 2014. While memories may fade quickly, I remember widespread predictions in 2014 that many if not most of the Sunni areas controlled by ISIS in Iraq would never return to Iraqi government control. Some of these arguments were based on the supposed unwillingness of Shiite fighters to take the fight to areas that were not their hometowns. This particular claim even had considerable resonance in late 2015, as the French professor Olivier Roy declared in The New York Times in November 2015 that "the Shiites of Iraq, no matter what pressure they face from America, do not seem ready to die to reclaim Fallujah," only for that city to be retaken through the extensive participation of Shiite fighters several months later.

Others said that Iran had an interest in keeping Iraq as a rump state with ISIS advances stalled to exert maximum influence, and thus retaking places like Mosul would not be a concern. Proclamations of the "end of Iraq" were frequent. The tendency to rush to judgment based on developments of the day persisted after 2014, as ISIS gained control of Ramadi and Palmyra despite the coalition campaign against it. Proclamations that the Islamic State was winning and on the march quickly took hold.

The belief in the necessity of a "Sunni force" to retake Mosul has long been popular, as though the grueling, destructive fight to take parts of the city, street by street, would have been vastly different simply on the basis of sect affiliation of the forces fighting ISIS. For a time, I myself partly bought into the "Sunni force" idea in suggesting in 2014 that one would have to co-opt elements of Iraq's other Sunni insurgent groups to take on ISIS. In fact, as quickly became evident, those groups have long been weak and ineffectual, often deluded with notions of "revolution" against the government in Baghdad.

If the claims that Mosul and other Sunni towns that fell to ISIS would be unlikely to return to Iraqi government control gained such widespread currency, what makes one believe that ISIS, which based its main selling point on its ability to control territory and run the ideal governance project, did not actually think it had a serious chance of at least enduring in a state form, even if it could not indefinitely expand and take over the world?

Posted by at July 21, 2017 3:25 PM