Since the Islamic State made major territorial gains that shocked the international community in 2014, the one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria it once controlled have been slipping out of its hands. In March 2016, after a year and a half of airstrikes from an international coalition of nations and ground combat with Iraqi, Kurdish, Syrian, and multiple Arab rebel group forces, analysts estimated that the Islamic State had lost 22% of its territory, 8% alone since this past December. If this trend continues, the Islamic State will only continue to fight a losing battle.
At the end of March, a substantial moral victory for the Islamic State’s opponents came in the form of the recapture of the ancient Syrian city, Palmyra, from the Islamic State. Called “psychologically important” by Michael Stephens of the UK’s Royal United Services Institute, Palmyra, which dated to the second century CE and was an important trading city under the Roman Empire, was home to “some of the world’s most magnificent remnants of antiquity.” The Islamic State views it as its duty to destroy temples or religious ruins that might detract from the worship of the one Islamic god, Allah, or ruins that have been portrayed as culturally important to either Iraqis or Syrians, given that it strives to create one Islamic caliphate that transcends present national borders. Accordingly, after it conquered Palmyra in May 2015, the group destroyed many of these historical sites in its objective to purify its territory from idolatry and nationalism. However, Palmyra was recently retaken by Syrian government troops backed by Russian airstrikes in a battle that wreaked further destruction on the ancient city but ultimately ended in success.
But defeating the Islamic State will neither be quick nor easy. On April 8, for example, Syrian rebels from the Free Syrian Army seized the town of al-Rai, which had been part of Islamic State territory since May of 2015. Yet this “significant loss” barely lasted: days later, Islamic State fighters again recaptured al-Rai.
Defeating the Islamic State in Syria will prove incredibly complicated given the utter disarray of fighting there. Various rebel groups seek to overthrow the Assad government, an objective supported by the US. Yet these rebel groups’ conflicting objectives prevent any real cooperation between them and are often hostile toward each other. The central command of al-Qaeda has even sent its own group, the al-Nusra Front, into the mix of rebel groups, and it is only yet another actor for the US and competing groups to oppose. Beyond fighting to overthrow the regime, other groups have territorial goals: the Kurds seek to gain autonomous territory for a Kurdish state in the north of Syria, and the Islamic State seeks to establish its own caliphate. All major actors, including al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, oppose the Islamic State, but given their own enmities with each other and vastly differing objectives, none want to cooperate to defeat it. Perhaps this accounts for why although the Islamic State has lost 22% of its territory overall, most of that loss has been across the Iraqi border, where it has lost 40% of the territory it once controlled there. Nonetheless, sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims have also compromised the Iraqi military’s ability to fight effectively against the Islamic State.
Despite these issues, it is essential to understand that great progress has been made in defeating the Islamic State. The recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels might seem to suggest otherwise, yet they only confirm the fact that the Islamic State is getting desperate. Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, explains those attacks as the Islamic State lashing out at governments conducting attacks against it and re-allocating resources once devoted to controlling territory when that territory is lost. Similarly, University of Chicago professor and terrorism expert Robert Pape wrote that “interpreting incidents like the Brussels attacks as a sign of weakness rather than strength is critical.” The Islamic State might have recaptured the small town of al-Rai, but it has lost Palmyra as well as the major Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Tikrit. It may be able to pull off a few more victories, but the trend for it has been--and should continue going--downhill, as long as those fighting the Islamic State remain committed and unfazed by its recent international spectacles of violence, as well as by any additional setbacks such as the loss of al-Rai.
In this manner, “slow but steady” wins the race: those demanding immediate, radical solutions to the terrorist threat lack any practical utility and should be ignored. Putting American boots on the ground in the Middle East, especially given the complexity of the situation in Syria, would be an unnecessary waste of lives and likely not accomplish anything effective. Ted Cruz’s proposed “carpet-bombing” would mean, in practice, indiscriminate bombing of civilian-filled cities. Over a year and a half of precision airstrikes in coordination with local ground forces have proven slowly but surely successful, but given the impossibility of completely sealing national borders, the threat of transnational terrorist attacks will remain as long as the Islamic State possesses sufficient resources and desperation. Indeed, should the Islamic State continue on its downhill slope, its desperation and incentive to attack transnationally will only increase: more attacks may be an unfortunate side-effect to its eventual vanquishing.
Even so, the Islamic State’s defeat is the best outcome we can hope for. Although the United States has supported the overthrow of Assad’s regime in Syria since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and has considered military intervention in the country, none of the rebel groups appear able, even with American backing, to decisively overthrow the Syrian government. The Syrian government is backed by Iran and, more significantly, Russia, a fact that precludes direct US military action against the Syrian regime given Russia’s status as a nuclear power.
Unlike the Assad regime, the Islamic State can be defeated. It may be a long process filled with setbacks as well as gains, and we may face the looming threat of more devastating attacks until it is done. The end result may not be the ideal result: the recapture of Palmyra was a substantial victory, but a victory for Russia and the Assad regime more so than for the US. On the other hand, those that briefly retook al-Rai were Syrian rebel forces. Perhaps an Islamic State-free Syria will be a patchwork of rebel, Kurdish, and government-controlled territory, or a state plunged back into civil war – and even with the Islamic State gone, there will probably still be al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front to worry about. But in all likelihood, the Russian backing of the Assad regime will most likely keep it stable and in power, which would bring the situation back to a pre-2011 Syria: in other words, back to square one.
While letting the Assad regime stay in power is hardly an ideal outcome for the United States or the Syrian people, with a nuclear-armed Russia now standing definitively behind Assad, it would be foolish to hope for anything better at the present moment. In fact, a stable Syrian regime with Russian backing might hasten the defeat of the Islamic State, as suggested by the successful recapture of Palmyra. And given that the formation of the Islamic State and its expansion in Iraq and Syria were direct consequences of US action in the region, the objective of defeating the Islamic State is significant enough in itself. Its defeat may be the best outcome we can hope for in the region in the near future, and the good news is that it is definitely possible, if not quite likely. Should we accomplish it, whatever the state of Syria’s Assad regime, it would be best for the United States to step down from a region it has only destabilized over the past decade-and-a-half.
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