Q&A about ISIS
it possible to defeat the ISIS?
Given the amount of forces on the ground, there is no doubt that a military defeat is inevitable. The recent setbacks suffered by Daesh confirm that. The Islamic state has survived exploiting the growing dissent between those who fight against it. Alongside its militants, what has to be defeated is the radical ideology that inspires the movement, the sectarian violence against the Shia and the appeal the terrorist group has on masses of marginalized youths across the Middle East and the rest of the muslim world.
How many men does the ISIS have?
There are only estimates available. According to some figures, there are about 15/20.000 combatants scattered across Syria and Iraq, 12 thousand of them are either Syrian or Iraqi. Previous estimates stated that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi could count on 35 thousand men. These figures don’t account for those who support the movement without fighting for it. Generally, supporters are on a 7 to 1 ratio with combatants. This means that there are about 200 thousand people that work for or support Daesh. And they will increase or decrease depending on what happens to the caliphate. The ISIS can rely on Sunni support in both Syria and Iraq, count on former baathist elements and exploit the Arabs-Kurds divide.
Which kind of weapons does the ISIS have?
Especially during the initial phases of the conflict when it confiscated weapons belonging to both the Syrian and Iraqi armies, the ISIS has obtained both US and Russian-made weapon systems. Daesh has built on this arsenal acquiring additional equipment via smuggling or thanks to the supplies given by a series of friendly states. The ISIS employs heavy artillery, tanks, anti-tank missiles, rocket launchers, armored vehicles. Despite their claims, they don’t operate an air force. But they do use drones and chemical weapons.
Who is fighting against the ISIS?
A total of 62 countries is currently fighting against Daesh. There are about 5 thousand US troops in Iraq acting as advisors and providing aerial cover to the Iraqi army. Several other nations are also part of the coalition bombing ISIS territory. There is the Iraqi army with its 200 thousand men, although a mere 40 thousand are actually fighting, the Kurdish Peshmerga with 80 thousand units, 10 thousand Iraqi and Iranian Shia volunteers (known as Hashd al Shaabi or People Mobilization Forces), Iranian Pasdarans (2 thousand men), Christian and Yazidi militias and a grouping of Sunni Iraqi tribes under the banner of Suhat al Iraqi.
In Syria, there are 5/7.000 Russians with 350 tanks, helicopters and 50 fighter jets. There is the Syrian army, with its 80 thousand men, of which 25 thousand from the elite Republican Guards, and there are paramilitary forces, including the feared Shabiha, that can count on 20 to 40 thousand units according to some estimates. Finally, the Hezbollah have deployed around 5 thousand men.
Is the ISIS currently gaining or losing ground?
Recent data shows that the ISIS has lost about 40% of the territory under its control in Syria and 50% of it in Iraq. Daesh still has a grip on two major cities: Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. Until then, al Baghdadi’s movement will not be defeated.
Who are the other factions hostile to the ISIS or the Syrian government currently fighting in Syria?
A number of different rebel groups are fighting against Bashar al Assad and, often, against one another. Jabhat al Nusra was affiliated to al Qaeda until its recent rebranding in Jabhat Fatah al Sham. It has a force of 10 thousand men and has often clashed with the ISIS. There is then the Free Syrian Army, fostered by the US and other neighboring countries, that fights both Daesh and the government in Damascus with its alleged 45 thousand troops. Fighting against the ISIS, but not necessarily against Bashar al Assad’s troops, is the YPG, a grouping of Syrian Kurds.
What could lead to a defeat of the ISIS?
The ISIS needs supply routes to survive and obtain food, weapons, volunteers. Until recently Turkey was supplying such a route. Lately some of the border towns have been taken over by forces hostile both to Ankara and to al Baghdadi and this is creating a lot of problems for the caliphate. Once all supply routes have been cut off, the Islamic militias will have to start to cope on its own. Turkey seems to have decided to stop aiding the Islamic State and this is one of the reasons why the country has been struck by a series of terrorist attacks over the past few months.
Will a military defeat of the ISIS put an end to Islamic terrorism?
Not at all. Once the dream of a caliphate collapses, the volunteers that have survived and are on the run will seek justice or revenge elsewhere. It is very likely they will try to relocate in some of the hotspots in the Middle East (Libya, Yemen, Sinai) or Africa. Terrorism spreads thanks to instability and despair. Furthermore, Islamic terrorism is here to stay. It’s been around for decades, since Osama bin Laden founded al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late 80s. The movement was taken over by Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq in 2003 and al Baghdadi just continued on the same path and created Daesh. Islamic forms of terrorism will thrive in any Arabic or muslim country affected by social injustice, poverty, discrimination, systematic violations of human rights. And sadly this is the case for most of Arab and/or muslim countries across the globe. Finally, Islamic fighters from non-muslim countries will also try to return home. The latest string of attacks in Europe proves the risk they pose.
Which religious movement has inspired the ideology of the ISIS?
Saudi Wahabism and its radical preachings have definitely been a source of inspiration. It’s not a coincidence Osama bin Laden was a Saudi, nor that several NGOs accused of supporting al Baghdadi come from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi kingdom discreetly supported the ISIS in its fight against Iranian influence in the region and for its role in fueling the Sunni-Shia divide.
Once the caliphate is over, will everything return the way it was before in Iraq and Syria?
No. There are a series of issues which will have to be dwelt with. The split between Sunni and Shia will have to be addressed. Syria, whether with Assad in power or not, will probably move towards a federal State recognizing the roles of Alawites, Sunnis and Kurds. Whether this will turn into a peaceful coexistence is a matter of debate. If we look at neighboring Iraq, where the Sunni-Shia civil war has been ongoing for over a decade, there is hardly any hope for peace in the future. The Kurdish issue will also have to be addressed. The YPG is now in control of portions of northern Syria and could push for greater autonomy or independence. The same has happened in northern Iraq, with a de-facto Kurdish entity. These pseudo-Kurdish States encompass those Kurds fighting in Turkey and Iran. Their struggle could lead to further instability in the area.
What about the effects of the conflict in Syria and Iraq?
In Syria about 12% of the population has either perished in the conflict – half a million people have died – or wounded (two million). Over 3 million Syrians have fled in neighboring countries, while 7 million are internally displaced. The country has been ravaged by five long years of civil war. Iraq has been at war with itself for the past 13 years. 250 thousand people have died, of which 16 thousand last year alone, while 3.2 million have left the country. And there is no end in sight for both conflicts regardless of what happens to the ISIS.