For a few months, the marauding jihadis of ISIS might have looked like an unstoppable army. That’s when they were moving at high speeds, their power blurred by hype and velocity. Slowed down by real resistance, a clearer picture takes shape and the limits of ISIS’s military power come into focus.
At the so-called caliphate’s edges, in areas like the Syrian border town of Kobani, ISIS’s march has stalled and its armor is starting to crack. We may be reaching the limits of ISIS as a conventional military force.
Facing a small Kurdish resistance and Western airpower, ISIS has been unable to take Kobani, despite surrounding and besieging it for months. That doesn’t mean the group is giving up, though, or anywhere close to defeat. The façade of ISIS’s power as a conquering army may be wearing off, but they can still revert to terrorist form and continue killing even if they can’t take ground.
Early on, ISIS leaders committed to a risky gambit: They decided to form a state, which put them in open conflict with other world powers. The group could have survived as a terrorist organization or a local insurgency as it had for years, but instead wagered on the caliphate. That decision provided an aura of authority that attracted new recruits and seemed to pay off in the short term. But it also transformed a regional threat into a global enemy that was easier to target in the areas it controlled.
Since then ISIS had acted as part state, part Taliban-style insurgency, and part al Qaeda-style jihadi terrorist group.
Despite the pathological absolutism of ISIS’s beliefs, it has proved flexible on the battlefield. As the tactics that won ISIS its most stunning early victories become harder to pull off in the face of warplanes and fierce local resistance, the group has adapted.
Depending on the enemy it faces, and its own vulnerabilities, ISIS moves along the state-terrorist spectrum of power. Blending into the local population in one area to operate in the shadows, while marching openly through the streets elsewhere. In battle, it means the ability to shift from suicide bombers to tank columns and maneuver warfare in the span of a day.
While Mosul showed what ISIS was capable of against a weakened enemy, the Kurdish town of Kobani is proving the limits of ISIS’s ability against a determined resistance.
If ISIS can’t break Kobani through a conventional military assault, the group can always revert to terrorist form. On Monday in Baghdad—another city ISIS has been attacking for months with far less chances of capturing—a suicide bomber killed 17 people.
Without an opposing ground force capable of defeating them, air power may push ISIS back from Kobani’s walls, but that won’t stop its attacks. It’ll adapt again and survive as it has for more than a decade.
Pic - "What would happen to ISIS as a political, military and terrorist operation if Abu Bakr were eliminated? What would happen to the dream of a resurrected Caliphate that would organize all Islam?"