Left: Kurdish fighters in Kobanî do a victory dance after the city was taken from ISIS (Facebook page affiliated with the Peshmerga, January 26 2015). Right: ISIS establishes itself in Libya. An ISIS military display in the Libyan city of Sirte (Twitter account affiliated with ISIS, February 18, 2015).
1. On September 10, 2014, American President Barack Obama announced the launching of a comprehensive campaign against ISIS aimed to "degrade and ultimately destroy" it. The campaign strategy had several aspects: intensive airstrikes in Syria and Iraq; strengthening local forces in Syria and Iraq (the Iraqi army, the Kurdish forces, the so-called moderate Syrian rebel organizations); damaging ISIS's sources of power (especially its financial resources); and improving the methods used by the United States and the international community to cope with the incidence of foreign fighters joining ISIS. All that was intended to weaken ISIS without significant American forces on the ground in Syria or Iraq.
2. To implement the campaign, within a relatively short period of time the United States put together an international coalition of Western and Arab countries for active (if symbolic) participation or support. Some of the Western allies (particularly France and Britain) joined the United States in carrying out airstrikes in Iraq, while a number of Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Bahrain) carried out airstrikes in Syria. Jordan also joined in attacking ISIS targets in Iraq after the captured Jordanian pilot was burned to death by ISIS operatives. Egypt carried out airstrikes against ISIS in Libya after 21 Egyptian Copts were beheaded, although not as part of the coalition (on February 16, 2015).
3. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 1,601 people had been killed in Syria by coalition force attacks between September 23, 2014 (when the airstrikes began) and February 23, 2015. Of them, 1,465 were ISIS operatives, most of them not Syrians (Syriahr.com, February 23, 2015). The number of fatalities relates mainly to Kobanî and probably does not include ISIS operatives killed in other locations in Syria and Iraq. In ITIC assessment the overall number of ISIS fatalities is several thousand. That would indicate that the airstrikes and the losses incurred by ISIS in the fighting hurt the organization, which has a limited order of battle (it is generally estimated that the organization has between 25,000 and 30,000 operatives). Nevertheless, at this point ISIS's losses have not significantly undermined its military capabilities or its control of large sections of the population in Syria and Iraq.
4. The coalition campaign against ISIS is expected to last several years (at least until 2019, according to some American estimates), and may extend beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq. However, at this point, half a year after the launching of the anti-ISIS campaign, it is possible to form an initial assessment of its impact on ISIS, and of the strengths and weaknesses of the coalition's strategies.
5. The first six months of the campaign indicate no clear-cut balance between success and failure:
1) Syria and Iraq
A. The coalition, with the support (significant, in ITIC assessment) of local forces, has succeeded in containing the spread of ISIS to other regions and has kept it from cleaning out pockets of resistance in extensive areas under its control (the provinces of Al-Anbar in Iraq and Deir al-Zor, Al-Raqqah and Al-Hasakah in Syria). ISIS's most outstanding failure during the past half year was the blow dealt by the reinforced Kurdish YPG forces in Kobanî (Ayn al-Arab) after four months of fighting (which began after the coalition campaign was launched). In Tikrit, north of Baghdad, ISIS is currently facing an attack by the Iraqi army to retake the city.
B. The coalition attacks resulted in a significant decrease in ISIS' revenues, especially oil revenues. That harmed its ability to govern (i.e., providing civilian services to the large population under its control). However, the continuing airstrikes and the decrease in revenue have not yet shaken its hold over the extensive areas it conquered in Syria and Iraq, especially its two main strongholds, Mosul (Iraq) and Al-Raqqah (Syria).
2) ISIS's successes beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq:
A. While contained in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is establishing itself in other Middle Eastern countries, using local jihadi organizations which swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and created "provinces" of the self-declared Islamic State. Its most prominent successes have been in Libya and Egypt (focused in the Sinai Peninsula). Thus ISIS has created a potential threat to Egypt, Israel, and the countries of North Africa and southern Europe.
B. ISIS also had two important successes in the international arena during the past half year: one was that the influx of foreign fighters who joined its ranks continued (although it has faced certain difficulties created by the preventive measures taken by various countries). The other was that jihadist operatives in Western countries (not necessarily those who joined ISIS in Syria) responded positively to ISIS's propaganda campaign and carried out attacks in their own countries against government and Jewish targets, especially in the coalition countries (so far apparently the attacks have not been orchestrated or organized).
C. ISIS's jihadist ideology is spreading rapidly and its image and brand as a leading jihadi organization remain undamaged and intact. ISIS is ahead in its rivalry with Ayman al-Zawahiri's Al-Qaeda, at least for the present.
3. The international campaign focuses on Iraq and Syria, however, during the past half year it has been faced with a series of challenges in other countries. The main challenges are the spread of ISIS to other Arab-Muslim countries; the influx of foreign fighters joining the ranks of the jihadi organizations; the increasing jihadi terrorism in Western countries and the strong attraction of Salafist-jihadi ideology in both the Arab-Muslim world and the Muslim communities in the West. As the campaign continues, the coalition will have to reexamine its concepts and strategies in the face of the challenges.
6. The international campaign focuses on Iraq and Syria, however, during the past half year it has been faced with a series of challenges in other countries. The main challenges are the spread of ISIS to other Arab-Muslim countries; the influx of foreign fighters joining the ranks of the jihadi organizations; the increasing jihadi terrorism in Western countries and the strong attraction of Salafist-jihadi ideology in both the Arab-Muslim world and the Muslim communities in the West. As the campaign continues, the coalition will have to reexamine its concepts and strategies in the face of the challenges.
7. As far as Israel is concerned, the establishment of ISIS and other global jihad organizations in Syria and Iraq poses two primary threats:
1) The increased threat of terrorism from Israel's southern and northern borders:
A. The terrorist threats to Israel's southern borders increased when Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the leading terrorist organization in Egypt, became an active "province" in the Islamic State (although the organization clearly gives priority to its campaign against the Egyptian regime).
B. In the north, ISIS does not yet have a foothold in the Golan Heights (and in south Syria in general). Of the rebel organizations deployed in the central and southern Golan Heights, Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, is the strongest (although the priority of Al-Nusra Front and the rebel organizations is currently fighting the Syrian regime, which, with support from Hezbollah, is trying to oust them from the Golan Heights).
2) Turning Jewish institutions and Jewish figures in Western countries into targets of terrorism: during the past half year jihadists in Western countries, some of them in solidarity with ISIS, carried out a wave of individual terrorist attacks on governmental targets. At the same time, Jewish targets were also attacked (in Belgium, Denmark and France attacks targeted a Jewish museum, a synagogue and a kosher supermarket). In ITIC assessment attacks on Jewish targets will continue. In addition global jihad supporters may also attack Israeli targets in Western countries.
The Structure of this Study
8. Five aspects of ISIS's successes and failures will be examined:
1) Containing ISIS's wave of success in Syria and Iraq.
2) ISIS's establishment beyond Syria and Iraq (i.e., Egypt and Libya).
3) Countries where ISIS has been contained or has failed, so far, to establish itself.
4) The lack of significant growth in ISIS's order of battle.
5) The wave of jihadi-inspired terrorist attacks in Western countries.
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