Can the Islamic State revive itself?
Updated: Jan 11
The Islamic State still has up to eighteen thousand fighters in Iraq and Syria in 2019. The group still has 400 million in its treasury, and can conduct an insurgency in areas of support throughout central northern Iraq and central eastern Syria. According to The Institute for the Study of War, "The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) is not defeated despite the loss of the territory it claimed as its so-called ‘Caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria. It is stronger in 2019 than its predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was in 2011, when the U.S. withdrew from Iraq. AQI had around 700-1000 fighters then. ISIS built from the small remnant left in 2011 an army large enough to recapture Fallujah, Mosul, and other cities in Iraq and dominate much of eastern Syria in only three years. It will recover much faster and to a much more dangerous level from the far larger force it still has today."
A second ISIS reclaimation however do face a problematic future. During the initial stages of the Islamic State's rapid expansion post the U.S withdrawal of Iraq in 2011, the Islamic State benefited from Iraq's weak security forces and political corruption by prime minister al Maliki. The Iraqi military at the time had few capable formations, were highly corrupt and were generally ineffective. The Islamic State benefited from these opportunities by conducting bombings, executions and raids across their historic strongholds in Mosul and in northern Iraq. The Islamic State also benefited from the loss of control of the Iraqi Syrian border. In October 2019 however the border is at it was before 2013, with two nations securing their borders militarily although border security remains an issue.
The Iraqi security forces also has experience with large scale warfare since 2014. Unlike in 2014 where Iraqi formations were not effective in confronting the Islamic State such as in Mosul, Fallujah and in Anbar province, Iraqi forces can now boast a much larger human resource pool. During the fall of Mosul in 2014, the city's defenses were manned by the second and third divisions, the CTF's mosul brigade and various police and militia units. Between 2014 and the expulsion of Islamic State territory in Iraq in 2018, Iraq can boast a much larger number of experienced institutions for war. These include the Iraqi Air Force, Iraqi artillery forces, Ministry of Interior Forces, the Iraqi conventional army and the counter terrorism forces.
On the other hand, the Islamic State fighters have experienced a long protracted war in Iraq and Syria for over several years. Their European fighters whom often considered their own praetorian formations have seen their number dwindle through casualties and a stronger Turkish Kurdish border which limits the pipeline of foreigners into Iraq and Syria. Although the Islamic State once had a proportionally stronger military then it's peers, this advantage has also dwindled from the conventionalisation of the Iraqi armed forces. The advantages in leadership the Islamic State once had is also diminishing due to the experiences of the Iraqi general staff and lower ranking officers during the last several years.
Socially and politically however, the Islamic State still has an element of support throughout Sunni areas and northern Iraq due to the mistrust of the Iraqi Syrian government and due to the sheer size of the Islamic State's former networks. Islamic State internally displaced people camps, or IDPs throughout Kurdish controlled territories are known to be lightly controlled and have security issues regarding radicalisation. Although the Islamic State's social and economic networks are large throughout Iraq and Syria, the group faces an issue of trust in territory it once held due to their excessive use of violence and enforcement of religious laws.
This is seen as a considerable difference in the earlier part of the decade when Sunni dissidents were more willing to welcome the Islamic State against the Iraqi and Syrian government. This being said however there are opportunities for the Islamic State to reinvent it's image in favor of being less violent to and more consolatory with people of differences. For example the al Nusra front has re branded itself as the HTS or Hayat Tahrir al - Sham. Part of this re branding could be differentiate itself from al Qeida. The Islamic State could also consider this re branding especially to offset its violent pan Salafi reputation to a more appropriate pan Sunni organization. If there were such leadership ideals, it is possible to see the Islamic State become less committed to its religious commitments.
The Turkish invasion of Northern Syria in october 2019 has also raised the issue of a potential pan Turkish Sunni restructuring of the Syrian Insurgency. Although Turkey may state that it has no intentions of fighting a war with the Syrian government or support the Islamic State, the size of the Islamic State's former networks throughout central and eastern Syria may make the group a candidate for exploitation or support by the Turkish government against the Syrian regime. Turkey may assist the Islamic State financially if it sees that this assistant can destabilize the Syrian or Kurdish government and also create a second front within central eastern Syria.
Although this highly speculatory, Turkey has dealt with the Islamic State in the past. A more pan Sunni undertone in the Islamic State's leadership may make this possible. The opportunity for the Islamic State to expand may also heighten if there were a security gap due to regime failure as had happened during the Syrian civil war. This was seen during the Syrian uprising and the lost of the first key eastern Syrian towns during the Syrian civil war. The lost of Iraqi leadership due to Iraq's political circumstances may cause a period of a leadership gap or mutiny, in which the Iraqi army may be unable to conduct its security commitment in Islamic State held areas.
Although this is speculatory, Iraq had seen its internal politics cause security failures outside of Baghdad. If this political failure is endemic to cause the military to withhold from its social security circumstances, this may allow the Islamic State to expand exponentially such as in the Sunni protests in 2013.