‘Temporary defeats’: Syria analyst Hassan Hassan on the future of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq

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IS fighters in Syria’s eastern desert in a 2018 video release. Image from Al-Hayat Media.

The Islamic State (IS) lost nearly all of its territory in Syria and Iraq over the past year.

“More than 98 percent of the land once claimed by [the Islamic State] has been returned to the people,” said Lieutenant General Paul E. Funk II, the commanding general of US-led Operation Inherent Resolve, in a January 1 statement. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over IS in December 2017.

In Syria, separate offensives by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the US-led coalition, and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), backed by Russian and Iran, dislodged the Islamic State from nearly all of its holdings in the country.

But territorial losses do not mean that the Islamic State no longer poses a significant threat, saysHassan Hassan, senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.

In this first installment of a two-part interview, Hassan draws on IS publications and media to trace the history of the jihadist group’s military tactics in recent years, from a militia to a conventional army and finally back to its insurgent roots. [Read part two here.]

Today, the Islamic State is “in full insurgency mode” aside from a few isolated pockets it still holds in eastern Syria and western Iraq, Hassan tells Syria Direct’s Tariq Adely.

“When they lose territory, they shift tactics with the goal of eroding and weakening the enemy,” says Hassan, “whether that is a local government, local militias or international backers.”

“These are temporary defeats,” he argues. “The fighting is still there. The threat is certainly still there.”

Q: In your report “Insurgents Again,” published in December by the Combating Terrorism Center, you lay out evidence for a calculated reversion by the Islamic State (IS) to insurgency tactics, similar to the group’s modus operandi in Iraq following the US invasion. What stage of that transition is the Islamic State in today in Iraq and Syria?

The transition, I think, has been completed. They are in full insurgency mode except for in some pockets [of Islamic State-held territory in the two countries].

The transition to insurgency tactics has been incremental. As IS lost more territory, they shifted to insurgency tactics in areas they lost, moving from conventional fighting to typical insurgency or terrorist tactics: suicide bombings, assassinations, targeted killings and sniper attacks.

Today, IS relies less on moving as a conventional army, and more on highly mobile groups of one or two people. Those groups can maneuver more easily from one town to another than a convoy of fighters. The Islamic State has discussed [this tactical shift] in its own writings.

Before IS took over Mosul in June 2014, they had operated as a militia since 2013, controlling some territory with other groups. [Ed.: For example, IS—then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—and Jabhat a-Nusra both maintained a presence in Raqqa city in 2013]. Before [2013], they used clandestine operatives and insurgency tactics to carry out terrorist attacks in urban centers.

An SDF fighter removes IS flag after capture of Raqqa city on October 17, 2017. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Campaign.

In Syria, IS gained control of territory alongside other groups [such as Jabhat a-Nusra, now known as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham], but in June 2014 they started to hold territory. That required a shift to protect these areas, requiring more resources, manpower and frontlines. For the first time, IS had frontlines, so they had to defend them against their enemies.

When the Battle of Kobani happened in late 2014, IS started to notice that these tactics—trying to hold territory or throwing manpower into battles to defend frontlines—were costly.

[Ed.: Kurdish forces, including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Iraqi Peshmerga fighters, supported by hundreds of US-led coalition airstrikes drove back IS fighters from the north Aleppo city of Kobani in January 2015 after a four-month battle and siege.]

IS lost dozens, perhaps hundreds, of fighters in Kobani. So, they started to think about change, essentially centered around the idea of circumventing the American air force. How do you avoid airstrikes as much as possible?

IS tried to avoid airstrikes by hiding and using military deception. They would use fake bases that the American jets would attack, or would launch a small battle in one place, then move somewhere else, to the real target. IS began this in [late] 2014, and it continued for about two years.

Q: The Islamic State’s control of territory in Iraq and Syria was at its peak in 2014. Roughly two years later was the point when they started to quickly lose territory in northern Syria to the separate offensives by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the Turkish-backed rebels with Euphrates Shield. How did the Islamic State adjust to those losses?

In spring 2016, [the Islamic State] moved to what I called at the time a hybrid approach: trying to control some territory and using insurgency tactics in other areas. It was a gradual transition. They still used conventional fighting in some areas they controlled, but [this hybrid approach] freed up some resources.

IS didn’t have to control a territory anymore or move as conventional fighting units or convoys.  They focused on infiltrating and attacking new areas—areas they couldn’t attack in 2014 at the height of their power. They attacked Latakia and Tartus for the first time, and struck the heart of Baghdad around that time as well: areas far from their territories that were supposed to be well-secured.

A convoy of IS fighters travel through desert in Deir e-Zor province in a 2018 video release. Image from Wilayat al-Kheir.

In May 2016, IS began to talk about a retreat to the desert and how it is not important to keep all these territories and cities.

‘We could lose Raqqa and Mosul, and we can retreat to the desert.’ This is what Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the former official spokesperson for the Islamic State, said in his last speech in May 2016. He died a couple months after that.

[Ed.: The US Department of Defense announced on September 12 that a US precision airstrike near the northern Aleppo city of al-Bab on August 30 killed al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s “chief propagandist.”]

Adnani used the word for a ‘retreat’ or ‘temporary retreat,’ to the desert, referencing a Quranic verse that says a tactical retreat is allowed.

[Ed.: The sixteenth verse of Surat al-Anfal reads: “And whoever shall turn his back to them on that day—unless he turn aside for the sake of fighting or withdraws to a company (mutahayazen)—then he, indeed, becomes deserving of Allah’s wrath, and his abode is hell; and an evil destination shall it be.”]

Al-Adnani’s last speech sounds like it was sort of his last State of the Union speech. He was saying that ‘controlling these areas is not important. What’s important is the will to fight—that’s what matters.’ This is the essence of what is happening now.

[Islamic State leaders] depict their fight as a continuum, part of a long war that began in 2003 and even before the Iraq War. It continues today, with ebbs and flows along the way. You fight, you weaken your enemy and you break down the social order that holds these governments together.

The final victory will be [not only] when the Islamic State is powerful, but also when its enemies are weakened. When IS controls territory, it weakens and provokes the enemy. And when they lose territory, they shift tactics with the goal of eroding and weakening the enemy, whether that is a local government, local militias or international backers. The goal is to end political order regionally and internationally, to establish the Islamic State.

In their writings, [IS leaders] talk about this war of attrition, their concept of nikaya. [Ed.: Nikaya, or qital al-nikayarefers to fighting with the goal of hurting one’s enemies and their interests]. They say that it was not the major battles in history that were the most decisive, but rather the continuous struggles that weakened the enemy enough to make the final battle possible.

For example, [IS leaders] cite the Battle of Hattin, between Salaheddin and the Crusaders. [Ed.The Battle of Hattin in 1187 marked Salaheddin al-Ayyoubi’s decisive defeat of the Crusader armies, which later led to the recapture of Jerusalem]. They say the Crusaders’ defeat was not decided by that battle, but rather by small battles that preceded it: assassination campaigns and convoy attacks. These little fights that history didn’t focus on, but that made it possible for Salaheddin to defeat the Crusaders.

[Islamic State leaders] say: ‘the Americans had the appetite and the desire to fight us in 2007 and 2008—when they sent tens of thousands of troops to Iraq during the troop surge. Ten years later, they lost that appetite, and pursued a strategy of relying on locals to do the fighting for them.’

The claim—which is not necessarily true—is that this [American] shift is the result of work they did to weaken the enemy’s resolve. They hope that continuing this work will eventually make it less possible [for the US] to defend locals and that IS will therefore win in the final battle.

Q: In a statement released at the beginning of the year, the US-led coalition said that the Islamic State has lost 98 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria. But your analysis of IS military strategy and tactics seems to say that territorial loss does not necessarily mean it is less dangerous. Moreover, insurgent-style attacks are not purely disruptive but rather part of an overarching strategy.

Yes, absolutely. A simple way of explaining this is to ask another question: If the Americans were to leave Iraq and Syria now, or stop using airstrikes against IS, how much territory could the group claim over six months? I believe the answer is simple: IS would reclaim most of the territory it lost, if not all of it.

Although [IS] is significantly weakened, they can still recapture most of these territories with their tactics and savagery. That’s an indictment of what the US has been able to do over the past three years. These are temporary defeats.

The Iraqi army, for example, is now stronger than it was in June 2014, but the US has not been successful in shoring up or creating local armies that could defend themselves. That tells you that the threat of IS is not lifted yet.

You still have fighting in Iraq and Syria [with Islamic State fighters], even though it doesn’t make to the front page of the New York Times or Washington Post. The fighting involves all these kind of hit-and-run attacks: small operations to assassinate certain individuals or to attack certain bases.

The fighting is still there. The threat is certainly still there. IS is even recovering in areas [of Iraq] such as like Kirkuk, Salah a-Din and Diala. It’s still there.

Q: Your research and analysis of Islamic State military strategy draws heavily on a reading of IS publications and media. How would you say the Islamic State’s media strategy—often considered a cornerstone of the jihadist group’s strength—changed in conjunction with its shift in military tactics?

IS focused on media for a long time, and tried to make the most of it. Back in the day, the Islamic State of Iraq, or Al-Qaeda in Iraq at the time, tried to infiltrate [pre-existing] online jihadi forums [unaffiliated with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State].

[Ed.: Al-Qaeda in Iraq later became known as the “Islamic State of Iraq” after the death of its founder Abu Musab a-Zarqawi in a US airstrike. The militant group took the name “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” or ISIS, in 2011, but was rebranded by leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 as the “Islamic State.”]

But there was something of a paradigm shift in 2014. I was observing the Syrian conflict from day one, following how IS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, used media. After IS took over Mosul, what they managed to do [with media] was completely different.

In June 2014, IS was able to produce slick, high-quality videos and pictures. They were delivering smart, media-savvy messages not only to Iraqi and Syrian audiences, but to a global audience.

So, although IS always focused on the importance of media, the way they used it [after] 2014 was different. Media will continue to be important, and we haven’t seen significant erosion of this media.

[IS media] was also a learning experience not only for IS, but also Jabhat a-Nusra [now Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, the leading component of the powerful rebel coalition known as Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS)] and other jihadist and Islamist organizations. They all learned.

This [jihadist use of media] is not going away. People have learned how to [effectively] use Twitter, Facebook and so on. It might move to another platform, but they have learned, and it will continue to pose a danger in the future.

The genie is out of the bottle.