Fighting Islamic State
Islamic State is losing ground in Iraq and Syria. Military analysts have become more optimistic that the collapse of the proto-state it established in the two countries is just a matter of time. But completely defeating the group and like-minded extremists is a larger challenge. Islamic State has repeatedly shown it can inspire terrorist attacks around the world without orchestrating them from a central headquarters. And jihadist groups have demonstrated a capacity to metastasize and to be reborn after past routs in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In June, U.S.-backed Syrian forces began a long-anticipated push to eject Islamic State from its self-declared capital of Raqqa in Syria. The battle to retake Mosul, the group’s last major stronghold in Iraq, was said by U.S. military officials to be in its final stages. Overall, officials said, the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State had retaken more than 55 percent of the territory the group once held. The operation, officially engaging more than 60 nations, combines airstrikes with support for the Iraqi military forces and Syrian rebels fighting the group on the ground. Major powers have committed few ground troops to the fight. Russia began airstrikes in 2015 against Islamic State in Syria, backing government forces. U.S. President Donald Trump came to office in January promising a new plan to eradicate “radical Islamic terrorism.” Military officials said in May that his review of the campaign resulted in two changes: delegating more authority to field commanders and preventing Islamic State fighters from escaping battles. Even as it has lost terrain, Islamic State has become a wider threat, launching or inspiring terrorist attacks in Europe, the U.S. and around the Muslim world. Just in May and June, these included the bombing of a concert in Manchester, England; an attack in London; and two simultaneous strikes in Tehran.
The group that eventually morphed into Islamic State was established in Iraq in 2004. It was originally an affiliate of al-Qaeda, the jihadist movement whose leaders the U.S. had driven from Afghanistan after they orchestrated the Sept. 11 attacks. The new group attracted Sunni Muslims rebelling against the occupation that followed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. When American forces toppled Saddam Hussein, the country’s Sunni minority lost the dominant role it had held in his dictatorial regime. Like al-Qaeda, which eventually disowned it, Islamic State aims to create a purified Islamic society, but its methods differ. It openly targets Muslim civilians, especially Shiites, whom it considers heretics, but also fellow Sunnis who oppose it. Weakened in 2007 by a surge of U.S. troops combined with an organized Sunni backlash, the group revived with the 2011 departure of coalition forces. It honed its combat skills in the Syrian civil war that began the same year. In 2014, Islamic State began conquering Iraqi and Syrian cities and declared a caliphate, a state that claims dominion over all Muslims. Using the internet to recruit, it attracted tens of thousands of Muslims from all over the world as fighters in its cause. In the areas under its control, Islamic State has practiced systematic violence — including abduction, sexual enslavement, torture and murder. A United Nations panel concluded it was guilty of genocide against the Yazidi minority.
Trump’s changes to the battle plan against Islamic State have produced a blunter use of force in Iraq and Syria, for better or worse. Freeing commanders of the need for high-level approval for even tactical movements has enabled them to take better advantage of changing battlefield conditions, military officials said. But ending the requirement — imposed by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama — means actions are less scrutinized for their potential to harm civilians. Refusing to let jihadists retreat, U.S. officials say, ensures foreign fighters won’t return to their home countries to commit acts of terrorism. Yet it may also endanger civilians. Under Obama, coalition officials cited the need to protect civilians — for instance when they were mixed in with retreating jihadists — when on occasion they allowed Islamic State fighters to slip away. Since Trump took office, reports of civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have risen significantly, beyond the increase in the strikes themselves. Trump’s approach, arguably, may get results faster, but at the risk of generating ill will among Muslims that may breed the next crop of jihadists.
The Reference Shelf
- A paper published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments offers options for strategies after Islamic State is defeated militarily.
- An article in the Atlantic argues for a policy of containing terrorism threats.
- A Congressional Research Service report details U.S. policy toward Islamic State.
- Bloomberg QuickTakes provide overviews of Al-Qaeda’s Heirs, Jihad, Syria’s Civil War, Iraq’s Brittle Nationhood and Iraq’s Oil.
First published April 30, 2015
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