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The military situation on the ground in the war against the ISIS looks less favorable to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi than it did in the recent past. Both on the Syrian front, where they have lost about 22% of territory under their control, 8% only in the lat three months, and on the Iraqi front, where they gave up 40%, the Islamic militias are on the retreat. What worries the caliph is not the loss of territory, but the lack of access to the resources that fuel the survival of his organization.

The smuggling of oil has seen a drop in revenues of 40%, the supplies of weapons, ammunitions, the influx of volunteers have all become increasingly difficult. In this respect, the situation is becoming critical, as some escapees have confirmed. After all, it was logical that an increase in the forces fighting against the Islamic State would have led to a downfall of the Islamist militias. The question is merely how long until they are totally defeated.

An international coalition

There are presently 65 countries that, with varying degrees of involvement, are contrasting the ISIS. There are about 7 thousand Russians in Syria, including regiments of Spetsnaz, about 50 aircrafts, helicopters and tanks. Around 4.500 US troops station in Iraq, both with special forces and trainers. Then there are the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, the Syrian Kurdish YPG, the Yazidi and Christian militias, the Shia volunteers, the Hezbollah and the Iranian Pasdaran, plus the Iraqi and Syrian armies. It doesn't come as a surprise that the least significant contribution is from Arab countries.

Warplanes from France, United States, Jordan, Canada, Australia and, following the attacks in Brussels, Belgium, Netherlands and United Kingdom bombard both in Syria and Iraq. Fighter jets from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Russia target the ISIS in Syria, while Denmark only flies over Iraq. According to the US, over the past nine months aerial strikes have eliminated around 10 thousand enemy combatants.

International inter-forces commands have been established in Damascus, Baghdad and Amman to coordinate the efforts against the Islamist militias. It is also significant that the war against the ISIS has helped overcome a series of international hurdles: the Russians communicate with the Israelis to avoid incidents, the Americans work hand in hand with the Russians to support the YPG, Iranians, Americans and Russians consult each other on the way forward in Iraq and so on.

The control over the airspace has been crucial. The ISIS doesn't have an aviation; they can rely on 6 airplanes that are grounded due to lack of maintenance, pilots and because they would surely be destroyed as soon as they take off. The weakness in the air is balanced by a strength on the ground, where the Islamic State is definitely more effective because its fighters are ready to die for the cause. They have recently been capable of flying drones for recognition missions over Iraq, but they have been incapable of arming them.

The turning point

The progressive defeat of the ISIS has coincided with the Russian support to Bashar al Assad. Since September 2015, a number of commanders from the Islamic State have been targeted and eliminated. It was the case of the commander of military ops in Syria, Abu Omar al Shishani, the Red Emir, whose real name was Tarkhan Batirashvili, or Abu Sayyaf, in charge of the oil sector, and Abu Ala al Afri, al Baghdadi's deputy and responsible of the group's finances. The targeting of the leaders of the ISIS by the US has been possible thanks to an improved intelligence. This usually means that the security apparatus of the militants is showing some cracks. Someone is now starting to talk or collaborate.

The military might of the ISIS is directly proportional to the influx of volunteers from across the globe. The United Nations estimates that there are about 30 thousand Foreign Fighters. 3/3.500 are Europeans, half of them French, around one hundred Americans, 2.500 Russian (4.700 if we also add those coming from former Soviet republics), and thousands of Arabs, mainly Tunisians (6.000), Saudis (2.500), Jordanians and Turks. This is more than double the amount of foreign fighters that went to Afghanistan. This influx is influenced by the evolution of the conflict and by the role played by neighboring countries. Now that Turkey seems to have closed its gates, the traffic to and from Syria has been reduced. Since the beginning of the caliphate, around 28 thousand militants have been killed.

abu omar al shishani
Abu Omar al Shishani

How the fight will evolve

Does this imply that Islamic terrorism is heading towards a sound defeat? The answer is no. Both because the ISIS fights a non-conventional warfare with terrorist attacks, kamikazes and guerrilla, and also because its struggle is fueled by the fanaticism of those who believe in a religious conflict.

The strength of the ISIS is not only in the control of territory – although this was al Baghdadi's initial objective – but rather in preventing others from controlling it. If and when the Islamic State is ousted from Raqqa, it will revert to its main tactic of organizing terrorist attacks across the world. We've had some blatant examples in the past months. As a matter of fact, there is a direct correlation between the military defeats of the caliphate and the exponential growth of attacks elsewhere. This is mainly a psychological need to boost the morale of the fighters on the ground. But there is also a practical necessity linked to the fact that the ISIS doesn't have enough forces to control a vast amount of territory and cannot sustain a war of attrition.

Furthermore, the attacks abroad are generally organized by extremists that have returned home from their experience in Syria or Iraq. An estimated 15% of foreign fighters go back to their countries of origin, while 10% die in combat. This has been possible thanks to the access to both the printing machines that produce Syrian passports and the personal data registry of the Syrian population.

This shift in strategies is particularly evident in Iraq, where it is relatively simple to exploit the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia. The ISIS stages its attacks away from the combat zones and inside Baghdad. The Iraqi army is even thinking about building a fortified trench around the Iraqi capital to control the access to the city. In January 2016, 1.320 Iraqis were killed in terrorist attacks, 1.090 in February; around a quarter of these victims were in the Iraqi capital.

haider al abadi
Haider al Abadi

The Iraqi test

The fate of the ISIS will be determined by the efficacy of the Iraqi army. After having fled from Mosul and Ramadi in 2013 and giving up the two cities to the Islamic State, and after retaking Ramadi and Tikrit in 2015 with the help of Shia volunteers, Baghdad's army is now preparing to attack Mosul.

With the help of the Kurdish Pershmerga, supported and trained by the Americans, the Iraqi will have to regain the control of a city of two million people and a symbol of the conquests of the ISIS. Just like Raqqa in Syria, Mosul has a high symbolic value. It won't be easy to chase out al Baghdadi's men whom, in urban centers, can sustain a fight against forces that outnumber them and are better equipped. The US is training the Iraqi army to face a guerrilla war inside the city.

The tactics of the ISIS have already been tested in Ramadi. They will disseminate traps and mines, exploit tunnels and underground passages, use suicide bombers that will strike against the enemy front lines with armored trucks loaded with explosives, they will hide among the civilian population and use it as human shields. The Islamic States will go for a flexible defense, avoid high intensity direct clashes and carry out small counter-offensives, with the ultimate aim of gaining time and lose small portions of territory at a time.

The outcome of the fight in Mosul will also be linked to the behavior of the local majority Sunni population, that is generally hostile to the government in Baghdad. Put in a tight spot, the ISIS might resort to using chemical weapons, as it did in June 2015 against the YPG in Hasaka. The atrocities committed over the years by al Baghdadi's militias leave no room for surrender.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al Abadi, claims that the ISIS will be totally defeated in 2016. This is definitely an optimistic prevision. The issue is not wiping out al Baghdadi and his militants, but rather diminishing the appeal of the ideology that goes with the Islamic State. Unfortunately, a so-called caliphate has ruled over a territory for almost 3 years, with its law, victories and conquests under the flag of Islam. This has such a fascination for many that the appeal that once belonged to Al Qaeda is now owned by the ISIS. Terrorism needs to be defeated on the ideological and theological front. And only Islamic nations can contribute to its downfall. If they intend to do so, of course.

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