Last week, President Obama stated that ISIS is “contained.” Not long after, 129 people were killed in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, which not surprisingly have been attributed to ISIS. These comments have come under intense scrutiny; even Democrats like Dianne Feinstein have criticized them.
Yet is Obama’s assertion that ISIS is contained really that inaccurate? A close examination of the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria show that, at least geographically, ISIS is not only contained; it’s diminishing.
According to Will McCants of the Brooking Institution’s Project on U.S. relations with the Islamic World, ISIS has lost around 25 percent of the territory it had at its peak last summer. In the first six months of 2015, ISIS lost 9.4 percent of the remaining territory it held at the beginning of the year, according to IHS Jane’s 360. In April, Iraqi Security Forces retook the city of Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein. By the end of June, Kurdish forces in northern Syria had seized the strategic town of Tal Afar and come within 35 miles of Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital.
Since then, things have gotten even worse for the self-proclaimed caliphate. ISIS has lost the Baiji district in Iraq, almost all of the area near the Kurdish city of Kirkuk, the outskirts of Ramadi, and parts of Syria near Aleppo. Shortly before the Paris attacks, Kurdish peshmerga captured the strategically important town of Sinjar, cutting off a key ISIS supply route between Iraq and Syria. Almost simultaneously, airstrikes killed the infamous “Jihadi John” and ISIS’s leader in Libya. Slowly but surely, ISIS is being pushed back.
The reason ISIS is losing is the same reason Hitler and Napoleon eventually lost: It is fighting too many enemies at once. ISIS is currently engaged with the combined might of the Iraqi government, the Assad regime, most of the Syrian opposition, Iran, Russia and the American-led coalition. There is simply no way a mini-state can defeat that many opponents.
ISIS’s territory has few resources, a relatively small population and little industrial capacity. Its military, while large for a terrorist organization and very capable, is dwarfed by the armies of its opponents. Sheer numbers reveal why ISIS is doomed in a war of attrition. The highest estimate of ISIS’s troop numbers is 200,00. This number includes a large number of support and logistics personnel as well as internal security forces that do not fight on the frontlines. Furthermore, many of these fighters are conscripts drafted from ISIS-controlled territory rather than the well-motivated radicals who were responsible for ISIS’s early blitz across Iraq. In contrast, the Iraqi Army has 271,500 active frontline personnel and 528,500 active reserve personnel. The Kurdish Peshmerga have an additional 190,000 troops. That’s nearly one million anti-ISIS soldiers in Iraq alone. And those are just two of the forces facing ISIS. That number does not include the forces of Assad, the Syrian rebels, Iran or the Shiite militias in Iraq, not to mention the American-led air campaign. Since the war has turned into one of attrition, with neither side likely to give up, numbers really will count in the long run. As the old saying goes, providence is on the side of the big battalions.
If ISIS had taken on its various opponents one at a time perhaps they would have had a greater chance of success. Yet ISIS has chosen to fight all of them at once. To make matters worse, it is fighting them on two fronts. Like Nazi Germany fighting the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front while simultaneously battling the United States and Britain in the West, ISIS has chosen to fight in both Iraq and Syria at the same time. In World War II the Wehrmacht simply couldn’t concentrate its forces while being hemmed in from two sides and found itself stretched to the limits. Likewise, ISIS faces the Iraqi security forces, Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq as well as the Assad regime and most of the Syrian rebels in Syria. ISIS cannot shift the bulk of its forces to one front without risking the other front collapsing.
If ISIS is losing territory, what about the spread of its ideology? ISIS’s narrative is heavily reliant on battlefield victories. Indeed, its stunning blitz across Iraq was what put it on the map in the first place and gave its ideology global appeal. Nothing succeeds like success and everyone loves a winner. However, as ISIS loses ground, the ISIS’s victory narrative will be harder to sustain. If ISIS loses all of its territory, it will no longer be able to proclaim itself as a caliphate since a caliphate needs territory to remain legitimate.
Without ISIS central, ISIS’s terrorist cells in the West will have no one to whom they can provide material support. More importantly, ISIS central represents the focus point around which the cause revolves. Without ISIS central, the ideology loses much of its appeal and direction. The Soviet Union played a similar role for numerous Marxist terrorist organizations like the Red Army Faction. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a significant decrease in communist terrorism. Many groups were severely weakened while others dissolved altogether.
If ISIS is losing, what explains the Paris attacks? It is very likely that Paris is a sign that ISIS is not growing stronger but instead is growing desperate. As organizations decline they often lash out in their final moments. As Nazi Germany was pushed back Hitler launched a last-ditch offensive in the Ardennes, leading to the largest and bloodiest battle for American forces of the entire war.
ISIS is heavily reliant on propaganda victories to sustain itself. In the absence of battlefield victories, ISIS is turning to overseas terrorist attacks in order to stay relevant. While this makes ISIS more dangerous in the short-term, it is a sign of weakness in the long-term.
None of this is to say that defeating ISIS will be easy. ISIS is a very formidable adversary: Its army is well funded, motivated, led, and it is battle-hardened. Yet a formidable adversary is not an invincible adversary. Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany and the Confederate States of America were all formidable adversaries yet they all lost in the end. It might take five years—it may take 10—but ISIS will be defeated eventually.
In late 1942, after the British Army’s decisive victory over Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the sands of El Alamein, Winston Churchill said, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” In many ways, the same can be said about the current situation with ISIS. This war is far from over, but we have already seen the end of the beginning.