The Islamic State has successfully battled for news headlines and large swaths of the Middle East over the past several months. Since a lightning-quick advance into northern Iraq in early June, the group that had been nearly extinct a few years ago has reached new heights of power. IS has upstaged other Syrian rebel groups by not only declaring its own state, but by resurrecting the Islamic caliphate as well. Such a radical change has come at enormous costs to the Iraqi and Syrian populace. IS has committed atrocities that would make the Khmer Rouge blush. The speed, ferocity, and brutality of their advance across Iraq caught the international community off guard.
A question worth asking is whether IS is capable of sustaining such a torrid pace. The group’s previous form, al-Qaeda in Iraq, once exercised significant power before a security crackdown and civilian uprising brought it down. In Iraq, the army and its militia allies have finally stunted IS’s advance. Some analysts posit that the group’s wide array of enemies, from the Syrian and Iraqi armies to the mainstream Syrian opposition and Kurdish peshmerga, will prove its downfall. Such views are idealistic. The challenges currently facing the Islamic State are less existential than those it has already overcome, while current trends indicate that the group’s size and strength will continue to grow.
When IS, then the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), first became embroiled in full-scale conflict with other rebel groups in January 2014, many observers assumed that the group would be overwhelmed by its plethora of rivals. In the early stages of that conflict such a proposition was not far-fetched, as ISIS was driven out of numerous areas. Within several weeks, however, ISIS had staunched the bleeding, and after a ferocious counteroffensive established the northern city of Raqqa, the largest under rebel control, as its headquarters. What was initially perceived as ISIS’s disintegration was instead revealed as a strategic move to consolidate forces.This tactic allowed ISIS to emerge from its most difficult trial to date in a position of strength.
This newfound power would be soon demonstrated. Earlier in 2014, ISIS had been forced to conduct a full-scale withdrawal from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor. This loss was ignored during ISIS’s June campaign in Iraq, a rolling offensive which saw them take most of the country’s north in a matter of days. The echoes of this offensive were soon felt in Syria as the newly-christened Islamic State returned to Deir Ezzor in force. A deft series of strikes saw the Islamic State make full use of its tactical prowess and recently-captured military hardware to pressure its opponents. These advances dovetailed with an effective social media campaign to entice significant numbers of other rebels to join IS, swelling the group’s ranks and allowing it to force yet more rebels out of the province. By mid-July, what had once been an anti-IS bastion was cleansed of rebel opponents.
The defection of rebels to the IS banner in Deir Ezzor province was not an isolated incident. Syria’s opposition is fragmented into hundreds of separate brigades, many of whose members are enticed by the Islamic State’s convictions and accomplishments. This has allowed IS to establish cells in areas of Syria from which it had been driven in early 2014, as well as regions in which it had never been present. Thousands of fighters have joined IS in the northern and central provinces of Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama, with IS units even emerging in Damascus.
Combined with an effective recruitment drive, rampant defection has allowed the IS grow to an unprecedented size. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a key monitoring group, reported that IS recruitment in Syria totaled 6,000 fighters in July, bringing the organization’s strength to roughly 50,000 fighters in Syria alone. The majority of July recruits were not foreigners but native Syrians, demonstrating the Islamic State’s domestic appeal. Considering that estimates placed IS’s numbers at around 10,000 individuals altogether a few months ago, the pace of expansion has been staggering.
It seems likely that the coming months will see the ranks of the Islamic State continue to swell.
Barring fundamental changes to the conflict, in the next year the majority of Syrian opposition fighters, seeing the clear benefits of joining IS, will likely do so. The Syrian battlefield will come to resemble Deir Ezzor, largely pitting the caliphate’s legions against Bashar Assad’s battered army and its allies. It is difficult to envision what Western actions could retard this process. Air strikes alone will not prove sufficient, while arming other rebel groups is an option that holds very little prospect of success at this stage. Convincing Turkey to seal its border would restrict IS’s supplies, but in the medium term the Islamic State will continue to thrive.
Featured Photo by Erik Barfoed.