Despite its advances in northern Syria and western Iraq, there is every reason to think ISIL may finally be on the road to defeat. In spite of its technical competence and impressive adaptability, the militant group may have overreached. The range of territory controlled by its fighters involves vulnerable supply lines and large tracts of land that are highly vulnerable to attack and rollback.
This is particularly true in Iraq. ISIL may be apparently on the march, but as Michael Knights has recently noted in Politico, reaching the Sunni areas on the outskirts of Baghdad has probably maximised the limits of ISIL’s potential reach in that country.
Moreover, while the American-led coalition has obviously so far resisted ISIL insufficiently, many of the necessary steps to augment air power, particularly in the Iraqi battleground – including augmenting Iraqi government forces and creating a “Sunni National Guard” – are in the process of development. It may take a year or more, but both should be entirely achievable.
There’s almost no question that, having committed to “degrade, and, ultimately, destroy” the power of ISIL, the Obama administration has put the United States on an inevitable course of unavoidable and continuous mission expansion.
It cannot afford either practically or politically to back away. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recounts that American measures under consideration include: raising the number of air sorties from 10-20 a day to 10 times that number, the transfer of Apache helicopters to the Iraqi government, the creation of a no-fly zone on the Turkish border, the revival of a new moderate Syrian opposition force and the introduction of a limited number of American “ground troops” in the form of “advisers”.
Despite its reticence, Turkey is getting closer to being drawn into the conflict. Ankara’s concern about the Kurdish PKK/PYD forces in northern Syria, and its commitment to overthrowing the Damascus dictatorship are important indications of where the United States and its allies have to accommodate others. But, in the long run, it is virtually impossible that Turkey will openly side with ISIL.
ISIL is thus now surrounded by enemies. These include Westerners who know that they are the ultimate target of these millenarian fanatics; Shiites and other religious minorities who understand that the immediate future for them in any ISIL-controlled area is genocide or slavery; and the existing Sunni Arab powers and religious establishments that understand that ISIL is also a massive existential threat to them.
More even than Mosul, Fallujah is the key to the pushback. Should ISIL lose control of that city, as it simply has to, its foothold in Iraq will be profoundly disrupted, and a pushback into Syria guaranteed. The real battle will probably begin in Mosul, but the end of ISIL in Iraq will come with the liberation of Fallujah. Then will come the far more challenging prospect of expelling ISIL from Syria, or at least neutralising its threat there.
Finally, ISIL’s Arab poll numbers are simply dreadful. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy commissioned a recent poll in several Arab states. ISIL got a mere five per cent approval rating in Saudi Arabia – a most heartening repudiation. Egypt followed with three per cent and Lebanon with one per cent. Such marginal numbers tend to correlate with those fringe types believing in the most absurd conspiracy theories.
ISIL is clearly exceptionally unpopular outside of the areas it controls. That’s a good thing. On the other hand, because it poses as a group that brings order to chaos, and because most people prefer any form of law and order to mere anarchy, ISIL has managed to win hearts and minds in some parts of Syria and Iraq where it has falsely posed as a champion of local Sunni populations and a generalised Islamic universalist and apocalyptic agenda.
And what of the small percentage outside their areas who do favour them? Well, it’s already obvious that ISIL does, in fact, have a coherent narrative that appeals to a small but potent group of people who think that it really is a vanguard for the Muslims of the world.
There are always extremists and fanatics. The challenge, as in so many other instances throughout history and geography, is for mainstream societies to come together – as indeed they are starting to – to make sure that they are not able to destroy the regional system, the global order and balance of power, and, especially, Arab and Islamic civilisation as we know it.
The strongest evidence, reading between the lines is that, slowly but surely, this is very much starting to happen, and ISIL is, thankfully, on a one-way path to eventual and decisive defeat.