Don't be fooled: ISIS isn't losing

Ramadi IraqREUTERS/Alaa Al-MarjaniA member of the Iraqi security forces stands guard with his weapon at Camp Habbaniyah between the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, March 12, 2015.

Despite recent analysis that the Islamic State is losing, the terror group is far from being truly beaten back.

Without a clear long-term strategy for the volatile region going forward, reports of territory losses will likely be empty victories as the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh) continues its brutal campaign to win over radicals in the Middle East.

This week, just one month after the in Iraq, ISIS overran the provincial capital Ramadi in Iraq and started closing in on the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Brookings Institution fellow Shadi Hamid explained the significance of these recent developments in a series of tweets:

Syria is still in turmoil as rebels fight to oust dictator Bashar al Assad, who is marketing himself as a lesser evil compared to ISIS in an effort to divert attention from the atrocities his regime commits against Syrians. And without strong governments in either Syria or Iraq, there’s a sense of lawlessness that ISIS is capitalising on.

Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS has quickly sought to claim territory and establish authority over that territory’s inhabitants, taking advantage of the power vacuum that exists in some areas of the Middle East.

The Foreign Affairs magazine article Hamid cites notes that ISIS is using religion and Islamic law to “establish a social contract with the Muslim population it aspires to govern,” which indicates that ISIS’ strategy is rooted in long-term dominance rather than short-term gains.

And ISIS is also aware that in order to maintain its authority in the “caliphate” it has taken control of, it needs to provide civil services to its citizens, just like any other government would. And even if ISIS-controlled towns are retaken, those areas have to be re

Ramadi IraqReutersA member of the Iraqi security forces stands guard during a patrol in the city of Ramadi April 29, 2015. Picture taken April 29, 2015.

Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger noted in their recent book, “ISIS: The State of Terror,” that while some Al Qaeda affiliates have considered doing the same in the past, they saw it more as a PR opportunity rather than a necessary function that was core to its mission. ISIS, however, “seemed to relish” providing these services and the group’s members “radiated enthusiasm for these projects,” according to the book.

ISIS has established consumer protection bureaus, displayed its flag prominently in public, and set up police forces in the territory it has seized.

Further complicating the mess in the Middle East is the fact that Iran — which has been backing the Shiite militias that are fighting ISIS in Iraq — likely doesn’t really want to defeat the terror group.

A map from a former US Army intelligence officer shows that the reason ISIS has been able to hang onto so much territory is because in some areas, it’s remained largely unopposed. But nearly everywhere the group has been fought on the ground, it has lost territory.

Iran does want to keep control of Baghdad and Damascus, but Iran also has something to gain in allowing ISIS to continue operating in some other areas because as long as ISIS remains a threat, Iran can claim that their allies in Syria and Iraq are the only thing preventing a jihadist takeover, thereby preserving Iran’s influence in those two cities.

Considering that the Iraqi army still can’t quite stand on its own, the militias Iran supports have taken the lead in the fight against ISIS. The US has been carrying out air strikes in parallel with the militias on the ground, but America has so far been reluctant to commit any ground troops to the fight.

The awkward alliance between the two countries make it’s exceedingly difficult to retake Iraq’s second-largest of of Mosul without Iraqi troops leading the way.

And aside from the question of who will be ultimately responsible for driving ISIS out of the Middle East — as well as reintegrating towns and cities into Iraq and Syrian society — it will prove difficult to defeat a group with a steady stream of fighters joining its ranks who aren’t afraid to die.

As Hamid wrote in The Atlantic in October: “ISIS fighters are not only willing to die in a blaze of religious ecstasy; they welcome it, believing that they will be granted direct entry into heaven.”

The quest for martyrdom isn’t necessarily unique to ISIS, but ISIS’ strategy of taking control of land and the people who live within its “caliphate” is something we didn’t see with Al Qaeda. And combined with the sheer discontent of Sunnis in the region, that strategy has been working.

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