ISIS: Are they really losing?

ISIS. Gone from being the name of an inept fictional spy organization in the TV show Archer to today’s most widely known and widely feared terrorist group. This offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has long since eclipsed its parent organization in its brutality, shocking and turning away literally everyone.

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ISIS is losing. As ISIS should. It’s an organization that can’t survive, because while it declared a caliphate, rebranding itself the Islamic State, collecting taxes, owning land, and selling oil, it’s simply not an organization that can survive without war. ISIS’ very existence depends on conflict with literally everyone around them, a situation they have achieved handily. After a dazzling blitzkrieg in 2014 where they broke the back of the American-trained, American-equipped Iraqi Army, taking over key cities such as Fallujah, Tikrit, and Mosul, threatening the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, as well as making key gains in Syria, reaching the Turkish border at Kobani, ISIS’ power has only waned. The intervention by the U.S. Air Force and then the Russian Air Force, as well as the addition of new belligerents including the Kurdish peshmerga and Iranian Shia militias, and the support of the Free Syrian Army by the C.I.A, has complicated the situation in the Middle East even more than usual, but the one victory that seems to be at hand is ISIS’ inevitable doom. Most recently, the Iraqi Army finally liberated the city of Fallujah with American air support, making it the third time in recent memory that it has been involved in such a conflict. By some estimates, ISIS has lost more than half of its land, most importantly losing much of its oil revenue through losing oil fields and through sanctions on the sale of ISIS oil.

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Yet while domestically the Islamic State continues to shrink, it has gained a terrifying new presence on the international stage. A new stage of the worldwide battle against terror in the Middle East was inaugurated by the attacks on the Bataclan nightclub in Paris, France, in November 2015. One hundred twenty eight patrons were murdered by men who claimed allegiance to ISIS. The group took responsibility for the attack. In the intervening months, ISIS has staged more and more attacks directly, as well as influencing so-called “lone wolves” to attack Western countries. The list of names continues to grow, from San Bernardino to Brussels, from EgyptAir to Dhaka. Specifically this month has seen a terrifying spate of attacks, as ISIS declared this holy month of Ramadan to be uniquely violent.

How do we reconcile ISIS’ domestic losses with its international victories (if they can be so described)? Zack Beauchamp of Vox recently published an article that reassures its readers that the only reason the terrorist group is so violent abroad is that it has been lacerated at home, that it is lashing out because it knows it is in its death throes. But unfortunately, this title is too familiar. Reflecting an optimistic sentiment about the state of terror, the “ISIS is losing” sentiment has become a refrain, one that seems designed to keep people calm in the face of terrifying events at home and abroad. It’s really easy to track this sentiment, even in Beauchamp’s own article titles. In February of this year: “Beyond Syria and Iraq: ISIS is losing ground around the world. In February of 2015, a year to the day before, simply: “ISIS is losing.” If ISIS has been losing for so long, how come Americans, Europeans, and Middle Easterners are still dying? Why is the frequency of terror increasing? Why does ISIS still make 25% of its revenue through oil sales?

Part of the reassurances we get from Vox and other (liberal, accusatively) media sources come from a desire to keep terrorism in perspective. After all, the idea of combating terrorism is fundamentally paradoxical, because the more Western countries engage against ISIS, the better their recruitment videos become. The more we try to keep potential terrorists out, or under surveillance, the more we lose the freedoms and civil liberties that are so abhorrent to those very terrorists. In effect, the more we recognize terror, the more we legitimate the issue, and the stronger terror grows. So yes, everything must be kept in perspective. The terrorism the world is experiencing is still dwarfed by many other, larger, more pressing issues, including economic development, food security, income inequality, and others. Stephen Walt elucidates this idea far better than I ever could in an article in Foreign Policy. And yes, ISIS is indeed losing. Kobani, Fallujah, Tikrit, and countless villages that had been conquered and pillaged by the fundamentalists have now been liberated. The Iraqi Army is performing far better than it did in the fateful summer of 2014. After a misadventure in Syria, Russia claims to have pulled out its air force and is no longer seriously engaged. Although the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad remains in power, his is increasingly a rump state.

But the fact that ISIS may be losing is not a reason for us to sit back and look on passively. If we let terror breed fear, fear will breed more terror. Yet if we ignore the consequences of a still powerful terrorist force on the international stage, we will have more and more days of mourning, more family members lost, more insecurity of our day to day fate. The effects of ISIS’ global reach are very real, from influencing Boko Haram in Nigeria, to offshoots in Indonesia, to insurgencies in Mali and other African nations, to hampering humanitarian, empathetic efforts to accommodate and relieve the largest refugee crisis in history.

Liberal (accusatively) viewpoints argue that Republicans and other right-wing groups are being cold blooded and heartless when they invoke nationalist sentiment and prey on fear to convince the public that refugees should not be accepted. And while the manner in which this campaign is conducted often turns on xenophobia and ultra nationalism, it is vitally important to recognize that the Republican Party and the right-wing parties of Europe are not necessarily lying to their constituents. There is a very real threat. That threat needs to be contained. In this kind of an arena, there should be no such thing as “acceptable losses.”

And part of the reason that this situation is so complicated is that ISIS’ status is just a part of the perfect storm that engulfs the Middle East, Europe and the United States. Its fate is just a small part of the endgame of foreign policy for much of the world. ISIS’ downfall means yet another power vacuum, one that is not likely to be filled with a much more palatable organization to Western powers. The refugee crisis does not end with ISIS’ downfall. Assad’s fate is not tied to ISIS’. International terrorism is not stopped with the end of ISIS. Yet part of dealing with the Middle East situation is recognizing that ISIS’ losing doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about it anymore. It doesn’t mean we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that they aren’t winning. The issue of international terror remains a vital question to our policy, with ramifications stretching around the world. ISIS’ losing forces us to ask ourselves the question, non-rhetorically, how do we win a war against terror? We had better come up with a good answer. Because if we don’t, we’re going to keep seeing “Terror Group is Losing” articles for a lot longer.

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