Perhaps no self-designation by an armed group has been more apt in the current context of the Syrian conflict than the Islamic State’s slogan, “lasting and expanding”. More than four months after the start of an international airstrikes campaign against the organization, ISIS continues to greatly enlarge the area under its control. It is reported that since September 2014, when the international coalition airstrikes against ISIS began, its Syrian territories have doubled in size. There are several reasons for this enlargement, which is going beyond the geographical areas of Syria and Iraq to become a global expansion.
A basic reason is that, in limiting itself to airstrikes, the anti-ISIS international coalition is not implementing a military strategy with diversified components such as ground engagement. The importance of the latter has become clear following the losses incurred by the Islamic State in areas in which its fighters have faced resistance from the peshmerga. The Kobani battles show that ISIS struggles when confronted with boots on the ground. Those boots need not be Western; they can be Middle Eastern. However, the West has been slow in providing adequate military support to the Syrian opposition, which would have allowed it to stand up to the ISIS expansion more effectively. Only recently has the United States announced that it is deploying 400 troops to train the Free Syrian Army. This is a positive step but comes a little too late in the game.
The coalition’s strikes have also indirectly helped the ISIS expansion through focusing on Iraq rather than Syria. When ISIS feels stretched following an attempt to expand into a given territory, it always resorts to retreating from this territory in order to re-group in core areas, re-strategize, and expand again in directions other than the land originally targeted. An example of this took place last year, when ISIS attempted to take over Idlib in the west but failed largely because of the governorate’s separation from Raqqa—the Islamic State’s headquarters—by Aleppo. After retreating to Raqqa, ISIS turned eastwards and has since been attempting to take over the governorate of Deir ez-Zor. As the coalition’s campaign is centered on ISIS in Iraq, the organization has withdrawn from some Iraqi areas to focus its energies on Syria, where it faces fewer challenges.
The Assad regime’s stance towards ISIS is one of the factors that have made Syria a relative haven for ISIS, paving the way for the organization’s control of a third of the country’s territory. A study conducted in late November by the research organization Jane’s found that until that date, only 6% of the regime’s attacks in 2014 were against ISIS. Despite the regime’s recent strikes in Raqqa, those strikes remain limited in scope and intensity.
Additionally, neither the regime’s nor the coalition’s attacks against ISIS have been primarily targeting the organization’s command centers or frontlines. Instead, they are mainly focused on core urban areas like Raqqa. This has left the command centers in the desert between Syria and Iraq largely operational, and the borders of areas under the control of the Islamic State fertile for further outward expansion.
This outward expansion has been enabled by increased alliances between the Islamic State and local tribes, especially in north-eastern Syria. The reason behind those new alliances is that many anti-regime tribes view the West’s intentions in fighting ISIS with suspicion. A number of tribal members lament that the West did not and still does not interfere to stop the onslaught of the Assad regime against them, but is only acting against ISIS, which they view as fighting the regime. They therefore interpret the anti-ISIS coalition as being complacent with the Assad regime. With no strategy in place to attempt to win over such tribes to the side of the coalition, they remain open to nurturing the ISIS expansion.
The Syrian opposition, meanwhile, remains divided. In addition to political divisions, there is little coordination between the northern and southern fronts among different Free Syrian Army brigades. The north is still largely under the patronage of Qatar and Turkey, while the south is overseen by Saudi Arabia and its allies, especially Jordan and UAE. Free Syrian Army generals in the north complain that Jordan does not grant them access to Syria from the south through its land. Meanwhile, attempts by southern brigades to unify the two fronts under a civilian-military administration have not only been dismissed by the north but have also faced the creation of parallel umbrella organizations or gatherings by northern and other southern groups.
The lack of military cooperation between the two fronts has enabled ISIS to start expanding southwards, where the main challenge it has faced has been limited to the Lebanese Hezbollah in the Qalamoun mountains bordering Syria and Lebanon. If the northern and southern Free Syrian Army fronts continue to operate not just independently but in competition with one another, this will pave the way for ISIS to create its own southern front and link it with its existing territories in the north, capitalizing on its centralized military command to overcome the fragmented command structure of the Syrian opposition.
Here the lack of a political plan for Syria comes back to the fore. From the beginning, it was apparent that airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to eradicate ISIS or even to reduce the scope of its area control. And yet the international anti-ISIS coalition continues to lack a comprehensive strategy to tackle the organization, which should include a viable political roadmap to address the wider Syrian conflict. The West has failed in providing vision in this regard, which has left the road clear for Russia to try to use this vacuum to its advantage by calling for talks between the Syrian regime and the opposition. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in favor of such talks and in support of UN envoy Staffan di Mistura’s idea to implement local ceasefires in Aleppo speak volumes about Western fatigue, lack of seriousness about resolving the conflict, and inadequate attention to developments on the ground in Syria.
In Aleppo, the Free Syrian Army has been squeezed into a territory that has only one potential narrow passageway out of the governorate. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, and the regime are all attempting to take over more districts in the area. Even if the regime adheres to a ceasefire, it is certain that ISIS would not follow suit and would therefore use this opportunity to overwhelm the Free Syrian Army. The relative strength of the Syrian regime compared with the FSA and the regime’s continued profiteering from ISIS mean that the latter would not use ceasefires to target the Syrian regime. Ceasefires without a plan to strengthen the Free Syrian Army would effectively mean handing over the governorate to the regime and ISIS. Meanwhile, Russia can hardly be a neutral mediator in a conflict in which it is a key supporter of one of the warring sides. And yet, leaders of the Syrian opposition have been pressured by di Mistura to attend the talks in Moscow, which indicates that the West is more interested in alleviating its own feelings of inadequacy than in leading a viable transition process in Syria.
The political stagnation surrounding the Syrian conflict and the absence of a military strategy by the international coalition are playing right into the hands of ISIS, and the responsibility for this is shared by the West and the different factions of the Syrian opposition. The Islamic State’s successes in Syria are in turn spurring its sympathizers to assert their presence and influence not just in the Middle East but also globally through various terrorist attacks. This has given the ISIS slogan another dimension, as geographical expansion in the Middle East is paralleled by symbolic expansion worldwide.