From November 2014, when it seemed that ISIS is in decline, the group focused all its efforts on strengthening its control over strategic regions and had to withdraw its forces from a remarkable portion of land it had already captured. The last important defeat that ISIS underwent was in the Iraqi city of Tikrit. However, in May 2015, the group managed to gain control over the historical city of Tadmor in Syria as well as the Iraqi city of Ramadi in addition to many other towns and villages in both countries, thus, proving to the world that its operational capabilities are still high. At the same time, in addition to Iraqi army and volunteer forces that are fighting this group in the Arab country, a coalition of six countries led by the United States is allegedly pounding their positions on a daily basis. Therefore, the question is how ISIS has been able to regain its operational capability?
The 60-nation coalition against ISIS managed to reduce operational capability of the group for a limited period of time, but could not stop its relentless progress. In fact, ISIS was defeated by the popular forces and the Iraqi army in all liberated regions of Iraq. Of course, after the US-led air campaign started against the ISIS, the group suffered great pressure. For this reason, the start of aerial campaign against ISIS played a remarkable role in slowing down the progress of ISIS. However, as time went by, the intensity of the air operation gradually ebbed due to dwindling number of suitable targets. On the other hand, ISIS forces started to adapt themselves to aerial attacks. As a result, by and by, the air campaign lost its early effectiveness. Of course, the reduced effectiveness of air campaign was not the sole issue with regard to ISIS. It was evident from the way US officials talked about Washington’s priorities in Syria that the United States’ determination to fight ISIS has faltered. At first, when ISIS started to expand the lands it had occupied, Washington openly talked about the priority of fighting against ISIS. However, after Saudi Arabia joined hands with Turkey and Qatar in Syria and Jaish al-Fath was formed through combination of Al-Nusra Front, Jaysh al-Islam, and Ahrar ash-Sham terrorist groups, decision-making centers in the United States once again reached the conclusion that their priority should be the overthrow of the Syrian President Bashar Assad. ISIS was then the main party that benefited from the faltering determination of the United States.
In this way, ISIS was managed to launch a new round of effective moves as a result of which, it succeeded to bring more land under its control. The impact that the US-led air campaign had in reducing ISIS moves, caused the United States to be named, along with Iran, as an effective actor in the fight against ISIS. Before the air campaign began by the US-led coalition, everybody knew that it was due to Iran’s timely move in supporting its allies in Baghdad and Erbil – the capital city of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region – that the fall of even more territory into the hands of ISIS was prevented in Iraq. On the other hand, the United States’ involvement as the leader of the air campaign was telltale sign of the seriousness of international community for stopping the ISIS threat. However, the impact that the air campaign had on the movements and advances of ISIS was not comparable to the impact of armed forces on the ground. This is especially true because ISIS had been gradually able to master certain tactics, which reduced the effectiveness of the air strikes to a minimum.
In this way, although the United States’ involvement in the war against ISIS had ended Iran’s monopoly on the credit for fighting ISIS, the fall of Ramadi and Tadmor cities discredited the US air strikes, thus, highlighting Iran’s effective role in the fight against ISIS one more time. In fact, recent advances by ISIS showed Iraqis and Syrians that involvement of a major regional power like Iran in a serious fight against ISIS can be much more effective than measures taken by a 60-nation coalition whose members are not serious in fighting ISIS. As such, further advances of ISIS in Iraq will increase the Iraqis’ trust in Iran while, at the same time, reducing their reliance on the US-led air campaign.
Another point is about the extent to which recent triumphs by ISIS can be taken as a sign that the course of the war is turning in favor of this group. In line with his annual habit, ISIS caliph is expected to deliver a speech in the forthcoming month of Ramadan. This year, he is supposed to follow previous years’ tradition in talking about his group’s annual strategies such as “breaking down walls,” and “establishment of Islamic caliphate,” but he is also expected to speak about survival and further spread of his state in the light of ISIS’ advances in Ramadi and Tadmor. In other words, ISIS will focus all its attention on its recent victories, so that, by shocking the regional countries, it would be able to pave the way for continued inflow of militants into Syria and Iraq and, as such, uplift the morale of its forces. Such victories, of course, are reminders of a bitter reality which under current conditions dispel many previous hopes in that they show ISIS will linger in the region for many years and will continue to wreak more havoc on regional countries.
In the meantime, international community has largely shunned its responsibility for playing a more effective role in the face of this group. The 60-nation international coalition has failed to stop ISIS’ advances so far. In areas liberated from ISIS, Iraqi military and volunteer forces as well as Kurdish fighters have been the main actors and the air campaign has only played a supportive role with a minimal effect. By breaching national sovereignty of countries, doing away with the geographical border between Syria and Iraq, massacring innocent people on ethnic and religious grounds, and conducting operations through its affiliates in other countries such as Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia and so forth, ISIS has emerged as a major threat to international peace and security. However, the measures taken by international community against this devastating phenomenon have not been proportionate to the level of the threat posed by ISIS. ISIS is not a phenomenon to remain restricted to the Middle East region. If it finds the minimum requirements, this group will certainly carry out operations against Western countries as well, an example of which was the terrorist operation in the French capital city of Paris. It is only a matter of time before this happens because capabilities of this group are continuously expanding. Just recently, ISIS’ English-language magazine, Dabiq, announced that the group is taking steps to buy nuclear bomb from Pakistan. Even if this were a bluff, it would not be impossible for the group to acquire chemical weapons or other kinds of weapons of mass destruction. The issue of ISIS is only an issue of time, but the main issue of international community is to achieve a correct understanding of the magnitude and scope of this threat. One must wait and see which side will resolve its issue sooner. (Hassan Ahmadian, Iran Review)