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Winning the war, not just small battles, against the Islamic State

The territory that the Islamic State loses in Iraq and Syria it could always double in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia or elsewhere in Africa

Last June, I sought to evaluate a year of the ongoing war on the Islamic State (IS), trying to explain why the nascent entity survived an intense international military campaign despite the evident asymmetry in technological and human resources.

Since then many developments have taken place. Beyond the Russian intervention which has complicated the calculus of all sides, two main actors have become more involved in the war: the French and the British. Unlike the Russians, who consider IS only one of many bad elements in Syria and appear to prioritise bombing other groups, the French and the British prefer to focus for now on the Islamic State.

For Western powers, the Syrian regime is not only considered the least of all evils, but the kind of evil all Western powers have found convenient to work with. The moral outcries feigned in Western capitals in the face of the death and terror unleashed on defenceless civilians by the Assad barrel bombs have all been quieted, although the atrocities continued to this day. The contemptible but significantly smaller orgies of death by the self-proclaimed caliphate offered Western leaders not simply the luxury of moral complacency, but also the chance to contribute to the mayhem, vying for influence and testing their latest killing machines.

IS losses on two fronts

But all of that bombing has so far done little beyond compounding suffering to change the overall map in Syria. There is no end in sight, and the Islamic State - the devil everyone has come to fight - is far from vanishing, although some smaller victories have been scored on two fronts.

In Iraqi, Kurdish forces have - after many failed attempts - retaken the city of Sinjar. Like elsewhere the success was in significant part the product of a massive American aerial support and generous European material and tactical assistance. In Syria, the Kurds made small-scale gains after their major victories in Kobani and Tal Abyad.

In tandem, Iraqi forces have also managed to push into Biji and, more recently, to Ramadi. With the exception of Tal Abyad, which IS withdrew from before any meaningful ground combat, these victories came with a price - a heavy price indeed. Thousands of combatants from all sides and thousands of innocent civilians perished. More significantly, all these victories, even the less problematic takeover of Tal Abyad, came with a destruction of an indescribable scale. Not unlike Kobani, the cities of Biji, Ramadi and the much smaller Sinjar are now ghost towns. 

And in two of these, Biji and Ramadi, IS continues to hold pockets from which it conducts a sustained urban warfare. Sinjar is slightly better, but not by too much, and cloudy and windy days have in the past months proven the bitter taste of these victories and the danger of being only a few kilometres away from IS’s frontlines. American air power has been the Kurdish frontlines’ best protection, and the challenges to its efficacy at times of bad weather proved to be costly to the courageous but tactically inferior Peshmarga.

Bombings have slowed IS significantly

After a year and a half of bombing, IS has lost some territory, thousands of its fighters, hundreds of its tanks and armoured vehicles and, for a while, its media arms appeared to have been broken. But IS is far from defeated and its conduct of the battle with its adversaries, local and global, shows only an unwavering resolve to fight to the end.

IS was initially hurt by the growing tactical sobriety of its Western enemies. US aerial raids, which have become over the course of the war more frequent, wide-ranging and better at responding to IS’s plans (not falling to its ploys) have slowed IS significantly in almost all fronts.

The earlier days when IS could (in the far-flung peripheries of the battle) mobilise its units in operational size to overwhelm softer Syrian and Iraqi military targets, without having to watch over their heads, have all but gone. The Americans have become better at monitoring and responding to IS’s movements across the theatre of action. And now with bases in neighbouring Turkey, and more robust intelligence bases in Irbil, enjoying some eyes inside Iraq and Syria, the American response time has shrunk and its targeting grown exponentially more accurate.

In sync with that watch-and-strike strategy, the presence of more aerial support from other nations, especially Arab states, but also the more loyal mother England, the American could afford to simultaneously concentrate on specific areas to flatten the road for their allies on the ground and give their fight a much needed psychological momentum.

More convenient, the Russian bombing - although strategically worrying to the Americans - has proven useful in the short term: It keeps one "terrorist" element (al-Nusra Front) on the defensive and prevents it from taking advantage of IS’s losses on the ground. This means a better control of the amoebic expansion of Sunni Islamic groups on the ground - which is Western powers’ main concern at the present.

IS militants adapt

IS has slowly adapted to this dreadful confluence of tactical factors. Its response is multipronged. For one, IS has grown more stingy with its military parades, and the use of its expensive military hardware, except in cases where risk is significantly mitigated by possible gains.

Assaults on enemy fronts within a short range of dense urban quarters were conducted only with light and carefully camouflaged convoys, and only supported with heavy hardware, when weather conditions warranted so.

Secondly, IS fighters in urban centres are keeping a low profile, focusing on indoors training - videos which could be used propagandistically to show its continued readiness for war - waiting for miscalculated urban attacks from their adversaries.

Waiting in war is painfully dull, especially to those working against the clock to show tangible results. Waiting in the air is far more boring and costly. However, for those who consider every new day a victory, and holding their ground a triumph, waiting is tolerable. After all, there are ample opportunities to shoot new propagandistic clips and a plethora of clips from earlier victories to watch.

And finally, IS has focused more on fostering and managing its growing global network. After all, what time gives IS is an air of plausibility in an environment where all other projects crumbled because of the timidity of their visionaries or were exposed for the hypocrisy of their originators.

Bullets are less effective than bulletins

Global strategic imagination continued to be the department where IS has a clear advantage over its adversaries combined. The reason is not IS’s strategic intelligence, but rather its adversaries’ geostrategic myopia. In a war were bullets are less effective than bulletins, and where compelling narratives have far more reaching effect than air strikes, it is those who have novelty and imagination on their side who exude momentum.

Although IS has shown a crude disregard for global sentiments, a despicable failure to fathom Islamic teachings and an unrivalled mastery at frightening and dividing the community it claims to represent, its adversaries have a greater disregard to the immense growth in global consciousness, especially in what many call the Third World, due to people’s increased access to news and historical perspectives.

The asymmetry between technical means, economic growth and the leaps in global awareness and knowledge are poorly appreciated by Western powers. Most still act as if the rivers of blood and mountains of ruble left by their militaries could be washed out of view by fake droplets of humanistic tears.

If it was not for the lack of military means, IS might have excelled its Western opponents in the destruction of Middle Eastern towns, killing and rendering homeless their inhabitants, but its brutality continues to be overshadowed by its novelty and consistency.

Its project is a new brand, and for the multitudes of Muslims who have not experienced its heavy-handed approach firsthand, its narrative seems in the minimum more bearable than the more common story of Western planes levelling defenceless Muslim towns and expelling their inhabitants. Western disingenuous rhetoric and hegemonic postures are nothing new and therefore nothing exciting: their ugliness and flaccidity is something no amount of cosmetic can ameliorate.

No amount of humanistic references, gestures of good will, or even lavish praise of the peaceful nature of Islam by Western leaders can wash from Muslim minds the images of the many coups orchestrated in the dark, the many dictators enabled to dash their hope of better tomorrow, the never-ending meddling in their affairs, or the immoral support of colonial enterprises.

In other words, whatever edge the lies gain in Syria and Iraq, they will always be undermined by geostrategic blunders in this or that Muslim country: eliminating a democracy (the case in Egypt), funding brutalisation of Palestinians, or bombing Muslim villages by mistake or design.

The result is of course clear. The territory that IS loses in Iraq and Syria it could always double in Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia or elsewhere in Africa. And always describing IS in the worst terms will do little. Until the West realises that it is better served by living with Muslim democracies no matter how inconvenient, the dreadful music of the "war on terrorism" will go on.  

- Ahmed Meiloud is a PhD student at the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. His research interests include studying the various movements of political Islam across the Arab World, with special focus on the works of the thinkers, jurists and public intellectuals who shape the moderate strands of Islamism.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Members of Iraq's elite counter-terrorism service hold the Islamic State (IS) group's flag upside down and flash the "V" for victory sign on 28 December, 2015 after Iraqi forces recaptured Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province, from IS militants (AFP).

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