To the detriment of humanity, June has been an active month for ISIS and its foreign proxies.
On June 3, ARA News reported that ISIS militants placed several enslaved Yazidi women at the center of a spectacle of unbelievable brutality. For refusing to submit to sexual slavery, ISIS burned these nineteen brave women before hundreds of onlookers in Mosul. On June 12, a lone gunman attacked a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing forty-nine people. The attacker had pledged allegiance to ISIS moments before beginning his rampage. On June 13, an attacker allegedly aligned with ISIS invaded a French police officer’s home, killing the officer and his wife, streaming the murder live on Facebook and taking the couple’s infant son hostage.
Amidst these terrible tragedies, there is increasing despair that the terrorist group will never be defeated. But, there is reason to be hopeful, as ISIS continues to lose ground in Iraq and Syria.
Defeats in Syria and Iraq
Over the last few months, ISIS has suffered significant losses in Iraq. On June 13, Reuters reported that Iraqi troops have been advancing against major ISIS positions, including the cities of Mosul in the north and Fallujah, east of Baghdad. At a slow but steady pace, ISIS’s stronghold in Iraq is dissolving.
ISIS’s positions in Syria have also been checked. While ARA News reports some ISIS advancements in the northern governorate of Aleppo this week, the armed Kurdish front “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) has made gains against the ISIS-stronghold of Manbij. The SDF and other armed Kurdish groups have proven to be uniquely effective in undermining ISIS’s control over northern Syria.
ISIS’s most significant recent setback may have come at the hands of the Syrian army, which recaptured the city of Tadmur in the Syrian desert in late March. While under ISIS’s control, Tadmur was a potential staging area for the group to advance on Damascus and its suburbs. Attacking Damascus, via Tadmur, is now impossible as the militant group retreats from the area.
A New Syrian Army
Not far from Tadmur, other players are working to dismantle ISIS’s presence in the south of Syria. In a brilliant analytical piece, Bellingcat’s open-source investigator Rao Kumar pointed to new (and clandestine) cooperation between U.S. and Jordanian forces to create an active armed force in the Syrian desert, known as the “New Syrian Army,” or NSyA. Kumar’s open-source analytical evidence suggests a very close relationship between NSyA and U.S. forces, through photographs and videos of U.S. armaments and U.S. special forces’ advisors working in tandem with NSyA members.
Kumar notes that NSyA recently conducted raids against ISIS and has been able to hold its ground in battle while also making gains against ISIS. NSyA’s strength may soon become more apparent, as Kumar notes it may potentially make a push against the ISIS-held town of Albukamal. A successful NSyA advancement on the city, paired with an Iraqi military offensive against the town of al Qa’im, would effectively fragment large areas of ISIS’s territory. For these reasons, Kumar argues that “the New Syrian Army will certainly be playing a key role in the fight against ISIS in Eastern Syria in the coming months.”
Far from the End
All of these are promising developments. They give the world hope for a day without ISIS. However, anyone looking toward the future must also acknowledge that militarily defeating ISIS will not be the end of the story. ISIS came into existence thanks to a complex set of circumstances. As varied and important as these circumstances are, disaffection and desperation have been among the keys to the group’s success.
In Iraq, the alienation of both Sunni Muslims and former members of the Baath Party, following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, helped give birth to the organization. Without the backdrop of decades’ worth of repression in Syria, it is unlikely ISIS would have gained a foothold in the country. On top of this, there was a dire lack of economic opportunity, as a result of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s deliberate estrangement of Sunni Muslims in the largely Sunni-populated areas of Iraq, which have come under ISIS’s control since 2014.
Tearing down ISIS’s networks with military action is only half the battle. Until the conditions that facilitated its rise are entirely uprooted, it will be difficult to rout out ISIS from the Middle East and beyond.