The conquest by the Islamic State of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus confirms the resilience of the jihadis and is an indicator of their current strategy. Islamic State has lost considerable ground in Iraq, with the recapture of Tikrit constituting its latest setback. IS has no real response to coalition air power, when it is combined with a competent and determined ground force. This was first demonstrated in the organization’s defeat at Kobani in January, and it is now becoming apparent in Iraq.
However, Islamic State is responding to this reality in a shrewd and calculated way.
Just prior to its eruption into Iraq last June, ISIS carried out a strategic retreat in northwest Syria. In retrospect, this was clearly a preparation for the push into Iraq. In so doing, the movement demonstrated its ability to concentrate its forces and to plan beyond the merely local and tactical.
When I interviewed two ISIS fighters in the border town of Kilis in spring, 2014, I asked them about the reasons for this retreat. “If there are powers against me, I have to retreat and protect my back,” one of them told me. “And perhaps in the future I will return again.”
It now appears that that moment has arrived.
As Islamic State contracts along its easternmost borders in Iraq, it is seeking to expand to its south and west, in Syria. This week witnessed the movement battling against Palestinian militants near Damascus, and handily defeating them to take control of around 90% of the Yarmouk refugee camp. Despite its name, Yarmouk is in fact to all intents and purposes a functioning suburb of the Syrian capital.
Further north, the Islamic State hit at rebel positions near the town of Marea in northern Aleppo province this week. Two car bombs detonated by the movement killed several rebels and injured many more. Heavy clashes followed between IS forces and members of Jabhat al-Nusra, the official franchise of al-Qaeda in the country. Nusra is thought to be supported by Turkey and Qatar.
The battles in Yarmouk and Marea show that the Islamic State remains far from defeat and is still able to go on the offensive.
More specifically, what this shows is that IS has understood the limits of the U.S. and western commitment to the war against them, and is planning accordingly. If the Islamic State were to attempt an assault in an eastward or northern direction, local ground forces plus U.S. airpower would soon stop them. But south and west, because of the different political situation, there will be no western help from above.
To the west, IS is challenging other Islamist and jihadi forces, who are no less anti-western than the Islamic State. Indeed, Nusra is quietly building a parallel de facto jihadi sovereign entity across Idlib and Aleppo provinces. The al-Qaeda franchise recently conquered Idlib city, giving it control over a provincial capital, as IS controls Raqqa city. Nusra has already begun to introduce its own brutal brand of Sharia law into Idlib, including the practice of public executions for a variety of crimes.
In the Damascus area, meanwhile, the Islamic State is battling against a coalition of Palestinian forces supported by the Assad regime. The most significant element among the Palestinians seeking to challenge IS in Yarmouk is Hamas. The Hamas fighters in Yarmouk go under the name of “Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.” They are cooperating with the rebel Jaysh al-Islam in pro-regime forces and of course there will be no western help in that battle either.
What all this means is that while it is suffering real setbacks in Iraq, the Islamic State is at the present time not being seriously degraded, nor it is anywhere close to being destroyed (the two goals of the west with regard to the jihadis).
Rather, it is continuing to push forward in areas where western air power will not be brought to bear. It is not clear what, if any, will be the western response to this. But it shows the extent to which the western campaign in Iraq remains poorly defined and lacking in clear goals.
The various other protagonists in the single war now raging in Iraq and Syria all have clear objectives.
The Iranians want to preserve their clients in Baghdad and Damascus, and if possible to reunite these countries under their rule. Islamic State and al-Qaeda want to preserve and expand their domains. The Kurds want to hold what they have and maintain their de facto autonomous enclaves in both countries.
All of these are judiciously using the forces available to them to achieve these objectives. Only the western coalition, in a microcosm of more general western Mid-East policy, appears to be flailing, lacking clear goals and beset by confusion. The Islamic State is far from destroyed. And as it is degraded in one area, it is expanding in others.