ISIL won’t be defeated on the battlefield

ISIL’s loss of its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds will not spell doom for the organisation, but a new beginning.

Peshmerga forces shoot during an operation to liberate several villages currently under the control of ISIL southeast of Mosul, Iraq [EPA]
Peshmerga forces shoot during an operation to liberate several villages under ISIL control, southeast of Mosul, Iraq [EPA]

It has been over a week since operations to wrest control of Mosul from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) began. With all the hype surrounding it, one would be forgiven for thinking that it was a Lord of the Rings-type climactic battle that will vanquish the evil of ISIL for good. Much like the film, however, that is sheer fantasy. 

The reason why ISIL will survive – and quite possibly thrive – once both Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa have been retaken is simply because the strategy to defeat ISIL has thus far been limited to the military sphere, and lacks a political component.

Battle for Mosul: UN concerned over ISIL’s killing of civilians

As the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means. If the US-led coalition and the Iraqi government’s political goals are simply to defeat ISIL militarily, they will fail.

Without addressing the multitude of problems that led to ISIL’s rise, ISIL will always be able to find willing recruits, or those willing to turn a blind eye to their activities when faced with the alternative of a brutal central government.

These problems include rampant sectarianism and extreme Iran-backed groups running amok in both countries, committing terrifying atrocities against the Sunni populations of both Iraq and Syria.

Definition of victory

Extremism aside, ISIL’s strategists are not delusional, and their definition of “victory” differs from that of their opponents.

OPINION: The battle for Mosul – The beginning of the end

ISIL know they cannot hold Mosul and so, to be victorious in what will be a long-term war, they must force Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to fail in his promise to recapture Mosul by the end of the year, further delegitimising the Green Zone government in Baghdad.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters take their position during a battle with ISIL fighters near Mosul, Iraq [Reuters]
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters take their position during a battle with ISIL fighters near Mosul, Iraq [Reuters]

Right now, ISIL’s strategy is to make recapturing Mosul, and eventually Raqqa, as costly as possible. In the case of Mosul, it is likely that it will engage in defensive actions in outlying towns and villages as it pulls back.

Think of these engagements as digits on a human hand – as each area, such as Bartella and Bashiqa, falls to advancing troops, ISIL will draw these fingers back into a closed fist around Mosul, concentrating its power and inflicting the costliest damage in the city itself.

ISIL’s inevitable loss of its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds will not spell doom for the organisation, but a new beginning.

Perhaps taking a leaf out of Chairman Mao’s military strategy in his war to establish communist China, ISIL’s approach will be one of protracted warfare.

Heavy assault

Examples of Mao’s principle of “uproar in the east, strike in the west” can already be witnessed in the Iraqi theatre. While the world’s attention was heavily focused on Mosul, ISIL popped up last week in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk killing dozens of people, mostly Kurdish security forces who have held the town since the Iraqi army fled in 2014.

Taking a leaf out of Chairman Mao's military strategy in his war to establish communist China, ISIL's approach will be one of protracted warfare.


More recently, Iraqi forces and allied Sunni tribal fighters were placed under heavy assault by ISIL fighters appearing in Rutba, a town near the Jordanian and Saudi Arabian borders in Iraq’s restive Anbar province.

ISIL lost Rutba earlier this year but seem to have now regained control of most of the town, despite being apparently rolled back and defeated in Anbar. The head of Anbar’s provincial council, Sabah Karhut, has now called for reinforcements and air power to be urgently sent to relieve Iraqi forces in Rutba.

The above provide us with several strategic insights. Firstly, there is a limit to the air power provided by the US-led coalition. It is focused on the main area of operations, which is currently Ninawa province, of which the capital is Mosul.

ISIL have therefore managed to engage forces that have either been able to move to these towns unmolested or else were pre-positioned there for such an occasion as the current operation against Mosul.

Behind enemy lines

Secondly, Kirkuk and Rutba are 170 kilometres and 660 kilometres away from Mosul respectively. ISIL have managed to strike behind enemy lines in areas that were supposed to already be secured.

OPINION: Mosul will fall again, but at great cost

In the case of Kirkuk, Baghdad proceeded to move on Mosul without first securing the Qayyarah-Shirqat-Hawija triangle which allowed ISIL fighters positioned there to simply move on the city and disrupt it.


These actions were no mere PR stunts to distract attention, but actually show that ISIL will revert to asymmetric warfare once it loses its holdings.

They will also utilise the medieval chevauchee strategy of conducting crippling raids on towns and villages that force them to grind to a halt, causing locals to lose faith in the ability of Iraqi and Kurdish authorities to protect them.

This may have disastrous results, as both Iraqi and Kurdish politicians have already been embroiled in corruption scandals and gross mismanagement and governance failures.

To add on to this their inability to provide security, that most basic of all needs, will completely delegitimise them in the eyes of the populace, and mean a significant victory for ISIL.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.