Emboldened in Syria and Iraq, ISIS may be reaching limits of expansion
LONDONMay 28, 2015 - 12:00 am GMT+3
May 28, 2015 12:00 am
With its two biggest victories in nearly a year in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has energized its fighters, littered the streets of two cities with the bodies of its enemies and forced Washington to re-examine its strategy. The near simultaneous capture this month of Ramadi west of Baghdad and Palmyra northeast of Damascus has reinforced the sway of the self-proclaimed caliphate of all Muslims closer to the ramparts of Islam's two great historic capitals. But although the fighters sound triumphant on YouTube, vowing to press on to Baghdad and Damascus, there appears to be little room for them to expand their territory much further, at least for now. In both Iraq and Syria they have lost ground in recent months as well as gained it. The weakest targets are already in their grasp, and they will have to devote as much effort to holding and administering the areas that they already control as to attempting to extend their onslaught.
In Iraq, ISIS militants already hold most of the land where their fellow Sunni Muslim Arabs predominate. The Shi'ite-led government has responded to the loss of Ramadi in the Euphrates River valley by dispatching Iran-backed Shi'ite militia, fresh from beating ISIS fighters in the valley of Iraq's other great river, the Tigris.
In Syria, rival Sunni Arab insurgent groups, once seen as feeble in comparison with ISIS, have drawn support from Arab countries and grown stronger, expanding their own territory at the expense of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. In both countries, ISIS has also suffered defeats at the hands of Kurds. But even if there are limits to how far ISIS can expand its territory for now, the victories this month give it crucial momentum, important for maintaining the support of people in the places it rules over. "The priority for ISIS now is to capitalize on the momentum that is gained from taking control of Ramadi and Palmyra because this war has been about momentum shifts," said Ahmed Ali, senior fellow at Washington D.C.'s Education for Peace in Iraq Center. "Up until (when) ISIS was able to take control of Ramadi, the momentum was against ISIS. Now this is a prime opportunity for ISIS to keep pushing, because it's trying to regain its reputation as this invincible force."
In Iraq, after the army collapsed last year and ISIS seized much of the north of the country in a lightning advance, the government and its allied Shi'ite militia rallied to halt the offensive before the gates of Baghdad. ISIS fighters fell short of their objective of seizing Samarra north of the capital, site of one of the most revered Shi'ite shrines, which they had pledged to destroy. The government and its militia allies are now firmly in control of the majority-Shi'ite capital itself, and have so far prevented ISIS from securing strong footholds in Sunni farmland on its southern and western outskirts, territory known as the "triangle of death" during the 2003-2011 U.S. occupation.
ISIS has killed hundreds of sheikhs and local tribal leaders in the Euphrates valley. But that sort of violence brings blood feuds that in the past made their rule short-lived. Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute, said that with the capture of Ramadi, the fighters had reached the natural boundaries of a state to rule Sunni territory. Although they could still launch attacks on Baghdad itself, those would more likely be isolated attacks rather than a campaign to seize the city. "In Iraq, ISIS is still losing ground, not gaining it, regardless of tactical gambits like Ramadi," he said. "ISIS is only capable of tinkering at the peripheries of the areas it already holds."
Syria, where Assad's government has been on the back foot in recent months, offers greater potential opportunities for ISIS to advance further. Unlike in Iraq, Sunni Muslims are the majority across the country, so a group seeking to rule over Sunnis faces fewer natural limits to its expansion. "On the Syria side, it's a completely different dynamic because ISIS there does not have a formidable force in front of it," said Ali. "It's able to attack Syrian government forces and we have seen so far that the Syrian government forces have been retreating in front of ISIS attacks. So Syria might actually be more of an objective ... than Iraq." Nevertheless, unlike in Iraq, ISIS in Syria is only one of a number of Sunni Muslim insurgent groups, which run the gamut from hardcore militants like the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front to comparatively secular nationalists.
ISIS has also made gains, and tries to recruit other militants to join it. But many Syrians resent its foreign fighters and its Iraqi caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Commanders of other groups know that the only way to keep the Arab guns and money flowing is to resist any alliance. But the victory in Palmyra, known as Tadmur in Arabic, helps ISIS make the case that it is still the most effective Sunni fighting force in Syria, which in the battle for loyalties is more important than the strategic value of any one target. "We are working on bringing in more fighters. That is why seizing Tadmur was very important, it is significant," said an ISIS fighter reached by telephone, who declined to be named as he was not authorized to talk to the media. "New fighters are now joining Syrian fighters. They have discovered that ISIS is true and fulfils its promises and brings back your dignity."
About the author
Research Associate at Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University