The Syrian regime and auxiliary militias, supported by Russian air raids, have reportedly broken the siege of Deir Ezzour, ISIS’ last stronghold in Syria. But if ISIS is ousted from Syria faster than diplomatic and cultural efforts aimed at disengaging individuals from ISIS’ radical ideology can be implemented, nascent extremists will likely look for a place to target, and they will find their own countries.
Deir Ezzor is a strategically important town southeast of Raqqa, and is arguably ISIS’ last stronghold in all of Syria. But merely taking away ISIS’ territory will not mark an end to its ability to conduct attacks in the region or around the world.
The regime has also made steady gains toward Abu Kamal, a Syrian town that borders Iraq and provides a crucial supply route to Deir Ezzor. If Abu Kamal is captured, any lingering ISIS position between Deir Ezzor and the Iraqi border will be cut off. The Deir Ezzor governorate itself is home to much of Syria’s petroleum, and its capture would further damage ISIS’ already-strained finances.
The offensive comes after years of back-and-forth between the regime and ISIS, who have been consistently losing territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
At the same time, the regime has launched an aggressive assault on ISIS positions and ISIS-occupied towns east of Hama.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces are on the verge of totally capturing Raqqa, ISIS’ supposed capital city in the region.
ISIS has been largely unable to defend its territory, and has consistently lost ground since their initial blitzkrieg which seized large swathes of territory within Syria and Iraq, at one point threatening to besiege Baghdad.
ISIS’ shift in tactics began happening after it experienced its first serious military setbacks in 2016, culminating in their loss of Mosul earlier this year.
Once ISIS realized it could not hold onto its state-building project, spokesman for the group like the former number two, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, began encouraging sympathizers to contribute to the global jihad from one’s own country--a far cry from their initial message of moving to their supposed caliphate.
Analysts and scholars have extensively studied the correlation between loss of territory and frequency/magnitude of attack. A recent University of Maryland study even found that as ISIS has lost its territorial hold on the Middle East, the number of attacks perpetrated in the name of ISIS has increased.
Though its fall has been unequivocal, the group has had unparalleled success in selling its narrative and becoming a magnet for disenchanted youth seeking to join a movement greater than themselves. At its peak, the CIA estimated ISIS could mobilize 20,000 and 31,500 fighters--a number that does not take into account the countless thousands of noncombatants who helped to build, administer, and maintain their quasi-state.
Years from now and regardless of whether it controls any land, ISIS may continue to set an example for what a successful insurgency looks like.
ISIS, though centrally structured around a state, also appears to be dynamic in its ability to switch from conventional warfare to guerrilla and terrorist tactics to achieve its goals.
As its territory shrinks, the U.S. and Europe must brace for the possibility that more attacks are on the way, and they may come faster and be deadlier. The complete expulsion of ISIS from Syria may exponentially increase the likelihood of future attacks if there is no geographic rallying point to flock to in order to join the cause, especially as ISIS continues to lose in Iraq as well. The most feasible option for would-be ISIS soldiers could be to plan and conduct a local attack from where they live.
This danger marks the precise end-point for relying on a military strategy to overcome a group like ISIS. Any long-term strategy that uses the militarized logic of combatting terrorism is doomed to fail, as the danger shifts from the battlefields of Syria to the homes and streets of European and U.S. cities.
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Europe and the U.S. may disavow its citizens who have gone abroad to join ISIS, as Canada has reportedly done in some cases, but it cannot ignore the countless thousands who are part of their societies, who view the ongoing conflicts and unfolding humanitarian crises in Syria and wish to do something to aid the plight of innocent civilians, and subsequently resonate with the empathetic messaging of groups like ISIS who claim to provide a safe place for embattled families.
Even if ISIS controlled some territory in Libya or Iraq, fighters would not simply flock to those lands as many saw the specific plight of Sunnis in Syria against the regime as the most compelling factor to joining ISIS in the first place.
Middle Eastern countries too bear responsibility in countering the messaging of ISIS and encouraging those who are curious about joining extremist groups or hatching home-grown plans to attack local targets to air grievances peacefully. This is especially true as most foreign fighters come from places like Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and face further social isolation upon return home.
Once Deir Ezzour, its oil fields and the border crossing with Iraq are all taken, ISIS as a conventional military threat will begin to dissipate in Syria, but the looming threat of so-called lone wolf terrorism and sympathy for extremism will linger. Approaches like the EU’s Radicalization Awareness Network, which seeks to understand how to better implement reintegration efforts into European policies, should be emphasized more as the long-term option in combating radical extremism.
Otherwise, if countries rely on a military/security strategy, policies that polarize and alienate already-isolated groups will push more over the edge toward violent action.
By Ty Joplin
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