With ISIS on the Run, Is the Dream of an Islamic State Officially Dead?

The success of the Kurds, the Turkish operation and the loss of cities and towns are slowly returning the organization to its starting point.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A member of the Syrian pro-government forces carries an Islamic State (ISIS) group flag as he stands on a street in the ancient city of Palmyra on March 27, 2016.
A member of the Syrian pro-government forces carries an Islamic State (ISIS) group flag as he stands on a street in the ancient city of Palmyra on March 27, 2016.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The death this week of Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s spokesman and the person in charge of its operations in Syria, doesn’t eradicate the jihadist organization, but it definitely thins the ranks of its senior commanders.

If the statements issued by the organization issues be seen as indicators of its moods, then its announcement of Al-Adnani’s death in an American airstrike reveals frustration, and also perhaps its next strategy.

“Do you think, America, that your victory will come by killing one or more commanders?” the organization asked in is announcement. “That’s a fake victory. Did America win when it killed Abu Musab, Abu Hamza or Osama?” it asked, referring to respectively to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, who succeeded Al-Zarqawi in that role, and Osama bin Laden.

“Will it win if it kills Omar al-Shishani, or anyone else?” the statement continued, referring to the organization’s de facto minister of war. “Do you think, America, that our defeat will come from the loss of a city or territory? Were we defeated when we lost territory in Iraq and remained in the wilderness, with no city and no land? Will we be defeated if you take Mosul or Raqqa or all our cities from us and we return to our starting point? Defeat is the loss of the will and desire to fight.”

It is an exceptional statement, which is apparently meant not just to raise the morale of Islamic State’s fighters, but also to prepare them for the future losses it anticipates. In addition, the statement attests to the organization’s willingness to change the strategy it has employed ever since embarking on its campaign of conquest in Syria and Iraq in June 2014.

The substantive changes that the organization made then were creating a contiguous territory by capturing large swathes of Iraq and Syria, and then running what it dubbed “the Islamic State” as if it really was a state. It raised revenue by selling oil, appropriating agricultural produce and collecting taxes and fees; it also ran an effective, professional propaganda operation the likes of which had never been seen before.

When Islamic State refers to its starting point, it means the time when it was a small, murderous organization in Iraq, and perhaps even the time when it was an inseparable part of Al-Qaida’s Iraqi branch.

This isn’t yet a statement of surrender or an admission of failure. But with the Syrian Kurds having taken the town of Manbij, with the Turks and the Free Syrian Army having taken the town of Jarabulus almost without a fight – thus gaining control over 400 square kilometers of territory along Syria’s northern border – with the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah having been liberated and with preparations for the recapture of Mosul and Raqqa moving into high gear, Islamic State has been forced to draw conclusions.

Anyone seeking additional evidence of the expected turnabout in the organization’s fortunes can find them in the clashes between its loyalists and deserters, mainly from among Iraqi militias and Sunni tribes in Iraq, over the division of the spoils once Mosul falls. These aren’t localized clashes like those around the Syrian town of Deir Ezzor last week or those in the Iraqi town of Hawija, nor are they like the clashes between Tunisian jihadists and those from non-Arab states, which were mere personal score-settling. Now, the unrest has reached Islamic State’s top ranks.

One of the best-known quarrels was the one between Al-Adnani (or, to use his real name, Taha Subhi Falaha) and Abu Luqman (Ali Musa al-Shawakh) over the conduct of the war in Syria.

Al-Adnani, a native of the northern Syrian province of Idlib, spent several years in an Iraqi jail, and was even interrogated by American forces, due to his membership in Al-Qaida. After being released from jail in 2010, he rejoined Al-Qaida’s ranks, but then switched to the Islamic State, where he worked under Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the organization’s leader at the time. He was sent to Syria by the latter’s successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and went there together with Abu Mohammed al-Golani, founder of the Nusra Front, which later became one of Islamic State’s bitter rivals.

Al-Adnani was appointed Islamic State’s spokesman, and he was also tasked with running the organization’s operations outside the Arab world, including planning and executing terror attacks in Europe. When al-Baghdadi was wounded in an airstrike about a year ago, Al-Adnani’s name was mentioned as a candidate to replace him, albeit not a leading one, since his religious education was deemed insufficient.

Abu Luqman, meanwhile, was named governor of Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. But four months ago, after fierce battles between Islamic State and the Kurds north of Raqqa, Al-Baghdadi decided to transfer Abu Luqman to Iraq and gave Al-Adnani responsibility for operations throughout Syria.

According to reports from Islamic State deserters, the administrative shake-up in Syria wasn’t due only to Abu Luqman’s military failures, but also, and perhaps primarily, to his frequent fights with Al-Adnani and suspicions that he was building a power center for himself that could threaten Al-Baghdadi’s control. Now, Al-Baghdadi has very few senior commanders left on whose loyalty he can rely.

But if Islamic State’s defeats continue, and especially if Mosul and Raqqa are liberated, a major internal power struggle is liable to erupt in which the remaining commanders will demand an accounting from Al-Baghdadi and perhaps even oust him.

Moreover, it’s not clear how the foreign volunteers, especially those from Chechnya and the Caucasus, would respond if they concluded that Islamic State was starting to crumble. Most of these volunteers have connections to radical organizations that are fighting Russia in the Caucasus, so they have somewhere to which they can return.

In contrast, the Syrian and Iraqi volunteers, who constitute the majority of Islamic State’s forces, will have to find refuge either in other Arab countries, like Libya or Yemen, or set up new terrorist organizations that will fight the Iraqi government and whatever new government is formed in Syria. Islamic State would then become just one more player in the Syrian and Iraqi theaters – one incapable of determining the outcome, but capable of causing much damage and destruction.

Fortunately for Islamic State, it isn’t the only one mired in internal quarrels and conflicts. The Syrian militias, the Kurds, the Americans, the Iraqis the Iranians and the Turks are all entangled in a knot that none of them can unravel. As a result, Washington has found itself in the position of a traffic cop stationed in the middle of a gridlocked intersection, waving his hands in all directions.

Just one week ago Secretary of State John Kerry threatened the Kurds with dire consequences if they crossed the Euphrates and ordered them to withdraw from Manbij immediately. The United States had to swallow its copious blessings on the Turkish operation in short order, after it turned out that the plan was not following the outline that had been presented by Ankara.

However, there is a difference between stopping the Kurds and stopping the Turkish Army, which keeps moving southward in order to build up its buffer zone in Syrian territory. The United States wants to wipe out Islamic State, while Turkey wants to wipe out Islamic State and the Kurds. These ambitions are mutually exclusive, since in order to contain Islamic State it is necessary to rely on the Kurds.

Islamic State has indeed retreated but who is going to control the areas it has evacuated? The Kurds? No way, because that would mean the establishment of an independent Kurdish canton in northern Syria. Maybe the Syrian militias? Not in the cards, because then Bashar al Assad will have won. The Turks are rolling into this vacuum. Without an outline for ending the crisis, never mind for the subsequent phase, the future is liable to resemble what happened in Iraq after the American forces withdrew in 2011 – a civil war. But that will be neither Washington’s concern nor Russia’s, just as Iraq stopped being of interest until Islamic State occupied parts of it.

The experience from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq indicates that a civil war is not a a self-contained front but a black hole that sucks in external forces and swallows them. Such a development is even more dangerous than the existing situation in Syria, where there is still cooperation at some level among the powers and the countries involved in the fighting.

Casting a long dark shadow on all this is the question of the identity of the next president of the United States. Will Hillary Clinton decide to cut her losses, take her hands off Syria and leave Russia to manage the arena exclusively, even at the expense of a harsh battering in international public opinion, or will Donald Trump the isolationist perhaps do this job for the United States?

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