ISIS is a master of tactical defeats – Why?

By Zaher Mahruqi

What a difference one year can make! US officials are now using less the word terrorists and more words like formidable or resilient foe when referring to the Islamic State. Of course they have a good reason to change their view on what is evidently more an army and less a “group”. An army which appears like a mutating virus that is able to adapt with swiftness and speed to enemies’ strategies to extents that professional armies find themselves changing from offensiveness to defence and have to continually start their military tactics afresh.

The Islamic State has once and again managed to acquire more territories almost immediately after losing other territories. Is this phenomenon a coincidence or is it a well thought-out strategy?

It is common for armies to make tactical retreats but it would appear that ISIS goes one step further.  Events on the ground do strongly indicate that ISIS does not make tactical retreats but goes as far as losing ground intentionally.  In essence its soldiers make tactical defeats in order to give the enemy an impression that the “group” is weakening.

When ISIS lost the Mosul Dam and later Kobani and Tikrit, its enemies celebrated as if the war was already won.  What happened after that of course did take the world by surprise as those losses were quickly followed by the fall of Ramadi and later Tadmur to ISIS.  If we compare the value of the towns taken from ISIS to the ones ISIS annexed thereafter, the difference in quality is clear.

As tel-Abyadh fell to the Kurdish fighters a few days back, ISIS appeared weakened but the soldiers of “Khilafah” quickly started probing and indeed taking quality areas in Hasakah and its fall appears a matter of days or weeks at latest.

As Tel Abyadh and neighbouring villages continue to be retaken from ISIS, it is not surprising that the “group” is probing Baghdad.  While many observers translate the retaking of Tel Abyadh as an indication that Raqqa itself is about to be removed from the grips of ISIS, critical probing of events of the past year should make any practical analyst uneasy about making such hasty conclusions.

If ISIS had let go of Tikrit and only to astonish the world by taking Ramadi coupled with the eminent control of Hasakah, the fall of Raqqa might actually be the worst news for the Islamic State’s enemies.  Letting go of Raqqa could be the most devastating tactical defeat that ISIS would make as the only worthy prize for its fall would be Baghdad itself.

No sane observer could ignore the fact that all the fighting of the past year is a build-up for the eventual invasion of Baghdad.  Taking Baghdad requires a huge army and if ISIS is to make a choice as to which city to abandon in order to erect a capable and formidable force to head to the capital Raqqa is the most likely choice.   For ISIS, expanding need not necessarily mean impractical or costly holding of territory.  ISIS expansion is a long term goal and as such fortifying itself in Iraq could be the best choice with the intention of a more invasive invading of Syria later on.

Rather than retreating, ISIS chooses to make its retreats appear as defeats and that has psychological and practical advantages.  First, it makes the advancing enemy pay a heavy price for capturing what ISIS deem as unworthy territory at a given point in time by planting booby traps and keeping a few hundred of its best soldiers behind to inflict heavy losses on the advancing enemy soldiers.  It is rare to hear of ISIS captives because its soldiers left behind have only one obligation and that is to die by taking out as many of the advancing army as possible.

Psychologically, the tactical defeats confuse ISIS’s opponents by giving them an imagined sense of euphoria by the victory only to pop up elsewhere and send an opposing message by taking better and bigger territory and the essence of that message in the minds of enemy soldiers is simply that what we are fighting is an army out of this world. This perception in the minds of its enemies has contributed greatly in the now-customary flights of armies far better equipped and far bigger in numbers when faced by only few hundred of ISIS men.

The ongoing battle in Hasakah and its eventual fall keeps the doors opens for fighters from Turkey into Syria.  The continuing battles in and around Beiji are clearly intended to create a pathway towards retaking Tikrit in which case the route to Baghdad would be set all the way from Hasakah through Mosul towards Baghdad from the North. Provided that Western Anbar is under ISIS control, a second road towards Baghdad from Western Anbar to Ramadi to Fallujah would open the pathway to Baghdad from the West.  If ISIS has to lose Raqqa in order to secure the two pathways then Baghdad would face its worst assault in its recent history.

This might sound like a theory at present but ISIS has proven once and again that it is willing to make huge sacrifices in the short term in order to secure longer term goals.  In as much as Syria is still contested, if ISIS manages to keep central Syria under its control, it still has a say in what goes on until it feels ready to come back into Syria.  Thus far ISIS had had its forces thinly spread but it is now clear that it intends to secure Iraq fully before advancing on Syria in a more concerted manner later on and it is now in the process of gathering soldiers to erect bigger army units.

Nowadays, when I hear that ISIS has lost a village or a town only two questions pop up:  Is it a real defeat or is it a tactical defeat and what is the next city on ISIS’s mind?

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Zaher Mahruqi

Zaher Mahruqi follows world events, and seeks to shed light on the Arab and Muslim perspectives on regional and world events.

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