Over the past weeks the Islamic State (IS) has been steadily losing ground in Iraq and Syria. Russian and American bombardments against the terrorist group are taking their toll. While Russia is keener to support the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and attack the Free Syrian Army, it also regularly strikes IS too. Iranian and Hezbollah fighters have also joined the Syrian forces under President al-Assad in order to turn the tide. Should President al-Assad be victorious over the Free Syrian Army then the regime in Damascus can turn all its attention against IS.
So far IS has only fought a one front war. After its quick advance through Syria and northern Iraq the terrorist group largely stalled as it reached the limits of its conventional military power. IS faced little opposition as the Syrian factions are all fighting each other and the Iraqi army is still divided. In Syria, IS waits for opportunities and only advances in the face of light opposition, usually when waring factors shift their troops away from IS to fight someone else.
The only military power that has been able to resist IS and also successfully fight back, albeit with the support of American bombardments, are the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Over the past months the Peshmerga have been able to slowly retake ground from IS, culminating on the 12 November with the capture of the city of Sinjar. The capture of Sinjar is a strategic defeat for IS since it cuts off the road between Raqqa, the capital of IS, and Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city and under IS control.
IS is now starting to feel the strain of more than a year of war. The rapid march across Syria and Iraq forced IS to station fighters in the big cities to occupy them. This caused a virtual attrition, leaving less troops on the frontline. At the same time IS has been facing a real attrition as its fighting force slowly gets killed on the frontlines. It is unknown how many new recruits IS receives to make up for these losses. New security laws make it more difficult for western Muslims to join IS. As the reality of war started to take hold IS could no longer promise new fighters a luxurious life, and so IS also lost a powerful recruiting tool. There are already rumours of IS wanting to use children as soldiers in order to fill the ranks.
The Islamic State is losing slowly on the ground and is looking for a way to turn the tide and tell the world that it is still far from being defeated. Thus, IS has begun a campaign of terrorist attacks against its foreign adversaries. On 31 October an IS terrorist cell placed a bomb on board the Russian airliner Metrojet Flight 9268, causing it to explode above the Sinai desert. On 12 October IS suicide bombers attacked Hezbollah members in southern Beirut, Lebanon. Friday 13 November saw two attacks, one suicide attack occurred in Baghdad and later in the evening the attacks in Paris took place.
The downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 was not only a warning against Russia but also against Egypt. The Egyptian President Sisi has been fighting hard against radical Islamic fighters. The Egyptian army was very active in crackdowns in the Sinai desert and it even send aid to Libyan warlords in order to fight IS groups in eastern Libya. The bombing of an air flight leaving from Sharm El Sheikh brought a temporary stop to tourism, Egypt’s main source of revenues.
The attacks in Beirut were a retaliation for Hezbollah support for President al-Assad. This support strengthens the forces of President al-Assad and thus the opposition IS faces in Syria. The suicide attack in Baghdad was aimed at the funeral of a pro-government Shia fighter.
The Islamic State is sending a clear message that in spite of recent setbacks on the battlefield it is still able to conduct several terrorist attacks against its adversaries. The attacks in themselves will prove to be of little value. The direct effect of these attacks will be that the nations or political factions that have been attacked will strengthen their resolve and continue to fight IS until the end. At the same time IS will continue to strike abroad and at the heart of its enemies whenever its military situation deteriorates.
A more indirect effect of the suicide attacks is the fact that IS shows that it is still the biggest terrorist group to take into consideration. Spectacular attacks like the bombing of an passenger jet, a suicide attack in a Hezbollah neighbourhood and the attacks in Paris will also serve as a rally beacon and a propaganda tool in the hope of recruiting a new wave of young radicalised western Muslims to strengthen the ranks of IS on the battlefield.
Vol. 7, No. 69 (2015)
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