ISIS Already Preparing Its Next Battleground - in Libya

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Iraqi security forces, after heavy clashes with ISIS fighters, regained control of the town of Husaybah, 8 kilometers east of Ramadi, Iraq. February 10, 2016.
Iraqi security forces, after heavy clashes with ISIS fighters, regained control of the town of Husaybah, 8 kilometers east of Ramadi, Iraq. February 10, 2016.Credit: AP

A serious dispute broke out within the ranks of the Islamic State last week to the background of the closing siege on the city of Aleppo by the forces of the Assad regime.

According to reports by Syrian opposition elements, Syrian-born ISIS fighters decided not to leave the besieged city and pressed for continued fighting against the regime. But foreign-born members of the organization decided to leave the city and not oppose the advancing forces of the regime and Hezbollah.

Those who supported leaving the city clarified to the "refuseniks" that they would remain on their own, without weapons supplies or financing, if they didn't leave with the rest of the ISIS forces.

Reports of internal divisions in ISIS aren't new. But this time it appears to indicate a special relationship between the organization and the Syrian regime with its Lebanese and Iranian allies.

Rebel opposition groups in Syria have reported that ISIS turned over important positions in the Aleppo area to the regime, as well as of "military coordination between ISIS units and the Syrian army in the north of the country."

It is difficult to assess whether ISIS was attempting to shorten its battle lines and focus on areas in which it is in clear control, as in the city of Raqqa and the Dir a-Zur region, or whether it assisted the regime in at least some of the contested areas.

Examination of the map of battles in which the organization has been involved in Syria indicates that in the hierarchical rivalry that characterizes the dozens of militias fighting in Syria, ISIS regards the rival militias, such as the Free Syrian Army or Jabhat al-Nusra, as being more bitter enemies than the Syrian regime. ISIS is thus adapting its strategy to ensure that it doesn't have to fight on too many fronts simultaneously, even if it means relinquishing land to the regime.

That strategy rests on the forecast that there will be two key challenges for the organization in the future. One is the intention of the Iraqi government and international coalition to reconquer the city of Mosul that was captured by ISIS in June 2014, while the second is the financing of its military and civilian activities.

The effort to recapture Mosul gained a tailwind after the Iraqi army and Shiite militias, supported by American airstrikes, succeeded in expelling ISIS from the city of Ramadi last month.

Although the capture of Ramadi was regarded as a success, perhaps the Iraqi government's largest so far, it was a bitter one. Large parts of the city were completely destroyed, the thousands of civilians who fled the city have been unable to return to their homes, the government does not have the funds to repair the water and electricity infrastructure and political disputes have already erupted over the type of administration the city should have.

Ramadi isn't be a model for the possible capture of Mosul, which has three or four times the number of inhabitants and different topography. Before the capture of Ramadi, the number of ISIS fighters in the city was estimated at less than 1,000, while those in Mosul are estimated to number 20,000, with thousands more available in eastern Syria.

As a sign of its determination to recapture Mosul, Iraq last week sent two units to Makhmur, 60 kilometers south of the city, with the intention of linking them up with the Kurdish forces that are likely to make up the key ground force in the recapture pf the city.

Despite the preparations, American intelligence is not persuaded that Mosul can be freed in the near future. Originally, April or May 2015 were spoken of as the likely dates for an attack. Now, they're speaking of next June, though General Vincent Stewart, the head of U.S. intelligence, told Congress that the recapture of Mosul would not happen before the end of the year.

That pessimistic timetable indicates that even the American airstrikes on ISIS are unlikely to bring about a dramatic change in the status of the organization, which continues to build up its defenses in the territories it has captured.

The coalition's air strategy will not succeed in evicting ISIS from the cities and villages it holds in Iraq and Syria. It still has sufficient profit-producing resources – producing some $400 - $500 million a year – even after the bombing of most of the oil wells it held.

The economic battle front against the organization, which has now been joined by Russia, still needs to prove itself. So long as the organization continues to benefit from generous funding, it will continue to maintain its control over the territories it holds and to arm its soldiers.

ISIS is beginning to look for alternative sources of funding to those that have served it until now in Syria and Iraq. Recent weeks have seen increased traffic of ISIS forces leaving Syria and Iraq for Libya. The number of fighters the organization now has in Libya is estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000, while its presence in Syria and Iraq has been reduced to 20,000 to 30,000 fighters.

Those numbers, though rough, indicate a trend that is increasingly being expressed in developments on the ground in Libya. For example, the organization recently announced the completion of a training course that included at least 60 Egyptians, as well as dozens of other nationalities. The course participants trained in live fire, bomb-making and the use of all-terrain vehicles. According to the report, they are intended to assist the organization in advancing to the suburbs of Tripoli, Libya's capital.  

ISIS recently published a document in which it said that "Libya is a theater of action that provides incomparable access for attacking Europe and vessels at sea." But before the organization attacks ships it is likely to first want to capture the oil terminal at Ras Lanuf and extend its control to the oil fields in the center of the country.

Libya, which is split between two governments, one internationally recognized and based in Tobruk and the other not recognized and based in Tripoli. The country is an enticing target for ISIS. The tribal fighting that erupted after the overthrow of Gadaffi, the lack of a national army and the financial problems resulting from militia control of the oil ports have crippled Libya. It is an excellent source for making revenue from oil, as well as a jumping off point for terror attacks and a state with influence in northern Africa, particularly among the neighboring states of Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

The United States and the European Union are concerned about the danger that ISIS poses in Libya and have begun to outline plans on how to deal with it. As with Syria and Iraq, a ground force composed of personnel from the Libyan army is not on the agenda – at least until the country's political crisis has been solved.

That strategy plays into the hands of ISIS, which is able to continue establishing itself in one of the richest countries in the region. While Western countries continue to peck at ISIS centers in Iraq and Syria, and as the Syrian crisis gives rise to more and more conferences and diplomatic chatter, ISIS is already in the next stage of its reorganization.

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