We have been critical of President Obama’s campaign against ISIS, and we will continue to be. The air campaign against the terrorist state should have been far more vigorous from the outset and we should have more boots on the ground.
In fairness, though, there are indications that ISIS is finally being pegged back. ISIS has lost a significant amount of territory. In Iraq, according to the Washington Post, up to one-third of its territory has been retaken, including Tikrit and the Baaji oil refinery. In Syria, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces, backed by coalition air strikes, has taken key areas near ISIS’s capital city, Raqqa.
These territorial setbacks are significant not just in themselves, but also because they deprive ISIS of revenue. The Post points out that ISIS relies on the heavy taxation of the population in areas it controls, plus oil revenue, confiscated property, ransom money, extortion, and antiquities smuggling. Revenue from taxation, confiscation, ransom, extortion, and smuggling diminishes as territory is lost. Oil revenue is diminished when oil fields are taken or disabled and when bombing destroys infrastructure.
There’s no sound way to quantify the financial impact of the campaign against ISIS. It is reported, however, that the salary of ISIS fighters recently was reduced from around $400 a month to $300. In addition, there are reports of serious economic hardship in ISIS controlled areas, along with cut backs in the provision of social services.
None of this means that ISIS’s financial problems will cause its caliphate to crumble in the near term. However, the tide may be turning against it in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, some speculate that the group is shifting resources to reinforce affiliates in other areas, such as Libya, to secure a safe haven if its situation in Syria and Iraq deteriorates.
As I noted yesterday, al Qaeda has been banking on the view that the ISIS caliphate is not sustainable. It may be that al Qaeda made a good bet.
But whatever the benefit to al Qaeda, we shouldn’t overstate the short term benefits to the West of even the demise of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq. For one thing, as mentioned above, ISIS now has a foothold in other states.
In addition, ISIS has already captured the fancy, and the allegiance to one degree or another, of many young Muslims in the West. ISIS will become less attractive over time if it seems no longer to be “the strong horse.” However, dreams die hard, so the loss of appeal won’t occur overnight. It probably will be gradual.
If anything, increased success against the caliphate will likely produce an increased desire to lash out against European and American targets in the short term. The Post’s report suggests that territorial setbacks may be spurring the surge in ISIS’s terrorism abroad.
The Obama administration enabled ISIS to attain legendary status among disaffected Muslims in the West. We may well pay a heavy price for years, regardless of what now occurs in Iraq and Syria.