This is part 1 of a 2 part series on the strategic evolution of ISIS. Last week, despite the headlines focusing on the Paris attack, ISIS suffered yet another serious defeat, this time in Sinjar, an Iraqi town which sits astride a major highway linking Raqqa and Mosul. A combined force of Kurdish Peshmerga, PKK and Ezidi militia commenced a massive assault on the city on November 13. Just over 24 hours later, at 10:20 local time, these forces entered the town, and rapidly captured all areas, facing only token ISIS resistance.
This defeat, which will severely limit the group’s ability to transfer materiel and fighters between its Syrian and Iraqi provinces, is just the latest in a string of losses for the group. Recent months have seen the so-called Caliphate lose control of the city of Baiji, the area surrounding Ramadi, as well as significant territory in Southern Aleppo. This is all despite the fact that ISIS, by all accounts maintains a large fighting force, which should be able (on paper) to offer greater levels of resistance, especially when defending urban or semi-urban areas.
With this considered, the question needs to be asked – why is ISIS so bad at defense?
Evolution and expansionism
One answer to this question comes in the way in which ISIS rose to power in large portions of Syria and Iraq. Following the collapse of the Syrian state in 2012, ISIS began to enter Syria, and rapidly began consolidating its presence in what were then ‘rebel-held’ areas. Over the course of the next year or so, through aggression, subversion and coercion, ISIS grew to dominate power structures in the west of Syria.
From this power base, the group engaged on a series of highly successful offensive operations. First in Syria, they captured almost the full length of the Euphrates River, driving out Kurdish, and moderate rebel forces. Then, they struck Iraq, taking advantage of internal instability to take control of Fallujah in early 2014, and then shocking the world with the capture of much of northern Iraq, including Mosul and Tikrit in June 2014. Finally, despite increased resistance and coalition airstrikes, the group managed to capture Ramadi and Palmyra in early 2015.
This history of victorious offensives used to expand their nascent ‘state’ likely cemented the idea in the militant group’s leadership that offensive operations were key to victory, while neglecting static defense.
Through this experience of continuously spearheading offensives, ISIS developed a strategy whereby defending territory was replaced with a different tactic altogether. Should an area come under serious attack, the group would merely try to stall the advance of the force with IEDs and a small number of near-suicidal troops, before mounting counteroffensives elsewhere.
Instead of committing seriously to defense, past battles have shown that ISIS prefers to keep the majority of its troops on reserve, and then mount counter-offensives against softer targets, taking advantage of the fact that their enemies concentrated their forces at the first point of attack. In this way, when attacked and defeated at point A, ISIS would counterattack at points B and C.
This kind of strategy has worked for ISIS several times over the past years. The most obvious example of this was following the defeats of ISIS in Kobane and Tikrit, the group launched simultaneous offensives against Palmyra and Ramadi. As well, the Iraqi city of Baiji has switched hands several times now between ISIS and government forces with ISIS mounting counter offensives only when opposing troops have been redeployed elsewhere in the theater.
Finally, ISIS not only implements these tactics on a theater-wide scale, but also on a more tactical level. Before assaulting a position, ISIS usually makes a number of small probing raids which despite causing losses for the group, helps them find and target weak spots in their opposition's defense. From there they mount a massive attack using VBIEDs, AFVs and infantry, as seen during the battles for Ramadi, North Aleppo and Palmyra.
Nonetheless, ISIS continues to lose ground across its core regions, proving that this strategy, while successful in the past is now a failing one. In part two of this article, released tomorrow, a new and dangerous ISIS strategy can seen to be emerging, which is turning it into a more global threat, while at the same time hastening its demise.