By: Yuji Develle
Photo: YPJ fighter fighting ISIL. Photo by Claus Weinberg
It has been a terrible week for Daesh. While the western world shook once more at the unspeakable barbarity and horrors of the Paris attacks, Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi and his affiliates were likely not in the mood to celebrate. Recently, Daesh has been losing ground on all fronts, signaling a new milestone in the balance of power. Losses in the field are likely going to play a major role in the eventual demise of the organization’s pursuit for legitimacy and credibility in the Levant and abroad.
This past week stood testament to the effectiveness of Russian and ‘anti-ISIL Coalition’ air support in supporting anti-Daesh forces. On the eve of 12 November, SDF-YPJ or Peshmerga forces captured the strategically crucial city of Sinjar. Captured after months of shelling and air bombardment from allied-aircraft, more than 80% of the city was taken in one efficient night assault. It is now assumed that most Daesh militants have since fled the city, although the YPJ has maintained that the city is being slowly filtered for IEDs and other traps. The capture of Sinjar is vital as it marks yet another milestone on the path to Mosul, an important relic city for Kurdistan, and is a symbol for the Yezidi people, who have been so brutally chased away into Mt. Sinjar back when the USA and France first contemplated expanding their aid to the Peshmerga. The capture of Sinjar also stands testament to the skill of the Kurdish forces, as the city was geographically protected in the North (where the Peshmerga lines were) by Mt. Sinjar and on its flanks, hundreds of kilometers of Daesh strongholds.
The capture of al-Hawl on 4 November, and of Sinjar will also disrupt Daesh’s oil and commercial transport infrastructure, as both cities lie on the principal supply line between Mosul and Raqqa or Deir-ez-Zor. Also, very significantly, the SDF-YPJ managed to absorb a Daesh incursion (or reaction?) in the Al-Kasak area (west of Mosul), killing no less than 60 militants, again with the aid of Allied air support.
The French air-force has reinvigorated its airstrikes throughout major strategic points in Daesh territory, as exemplified by their timely sortie of twelve bombers to strike on military targets in Raqqa: a recruitment post, command HQ and several weapons stockpiles. American AC130 gunships have remarkably destroyed a large oil convoy in Western Iraq on Friday, and perhaps coincidentally Russian Col. General Andrei Kartapov announced that they too destroyed a 500-truck oil convoy with Tu-22M3 long-range strategic and maritime strike bombers. In light of these large material and territorial losses, Daesh resorted to the age-old technique of executing its deserters, as a way to instill further fear into its men. In what is a general trend among Daesh’s ranks in the past weeks, eight deserters were executed in the Anbar province last week (said an eyewitness in Erbil upon condition of anonymity), and 73 militants were executed by firing squad south of Mosul for having evacuated Sinjar.
It is too easy however to solely focus on the good news, as Daesh has made some advances as well. The most urgent example would be the town of Sadah, in the Homs region, which saw most of its 15,000 Christians flee in fear of Daesh capture, the latter being found in the neighboring towns of Hawwarin and Mheen, a short drive away. With Assad and his affiliates determined to make advances against the rebel factions and Daesh in the north around Aleppo, this leaves towns like Sadah with no choice but to defend against Daesh with relatively under-armed local militia.
What is apparent in the information being received in the West about what is happening in Iraq and Syria is that, as hinted towards in a landmark article on Daesh’s motives, our ignorance regarding the hermit kingdom is that Daesh is palpable,centrirugi but understandable.
An important corollary must be underlined before analyzing significance of the latest evolutions on the battlefield. The intelligence received by academics on the subject is almost always filtered by some kind of military spokesman before being delivered. Our favorable opinion of the Peshmerga is to an extent dependent on the highly controlled nature of their public relations, releasing videos of all-female regiments in the Battle for Sinjar and restricting most journalists access to information beyond Erbil’s YPJ media center. As social media becomes an important battleground for the shaping of public opinion among military and civilians entities, information from non-official sources has become something of a rarity.
Understanding the role of controlling the narrative in this war begs the question: is Daesh losing the ability to represent itself, ‘as a key actor in the coming apocalypse’ (the global conflict between Islam and the ‘infidels’ many Daesh propagandists continuously refer back to)?  The short answer is yes, because of its weakening territorial legitimacy and credibility.
Daesh has long distinguished itself as a thought leader among jihadi groups, primarily due to its ability to hold and secure territory, something that Al-Qaeda was incapable of doing. Seemingly able to bring into reality the jihadist theories developed in the 1980-90s, such as the need to attack/control both the ‘occupied territories’, or opponents in the Levant, and the ‘colonial metropolis’ – Paris, Daesh wielded the dual-edged sword of terrorism and conventional warfare seemingly well.
While the attacks in Paris certainly confirm Daesh’s ability to strike the colonial metropolis, the same cannot be said about their military losses in the Levant and their statecraft-related struggles. Coalition airstrikes on Daesh’s oil convoys and further crackdown on informal tradecraft along the Turkish border have significantly reduced oil revenues. A leaked document revealed that 44.7% of Deir-ez-Zor’s revenues came from ‘confiscations’ including extortion, robbery and kidnapping, while another significant 27% of revenues came from oil and gas. A safe prediction would be that confiscations have as of now taken a much larger portion of the organization’s budget, an economy of plunder. The Ba’athist administration is also crumbling under the specter of drone strikes, which according to US Military Spokesperson Col. Steve Warren, have managed to take out a mid-high level officer every couple days.
Unable to work effectively in a constantly changing bureaucratic environment, Daesh will become less able to fulfill the type of humanitarian aid that local Sunnis lauded them for last year. Foreign fighters, increasingly valued for their fanatical spirit and statistically more violent behavior, risk to become a source of discontent among the local population, as expenditures on their salaries (44%) dwarf that of humanitarian aid (5.7%) and services (17.7%).
When strung together with Daesh’s military defeats, these seemingly inoffensive structural deficiencies provide compelling evidence to the world that the organization is pressured towards the breaking point. With every successful attack against Daesh, the unity of Daesh’s opponents results in its powerlessness on the field and damages its most valuable assets: its position as a jihadist thought leader, its Ba’athist infrastructure, and its budgetary self-sufficiency.
Yuji Develle is currently reading a B.A. (Hons) in War Studies. He is also currently the BA Editor and representative for Strife, and Editor of Dialogue Magazine’s Emerging Securities Section. You can follow him on Twitter @YDevelle.
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Yuji Develle, is an Undergraduate Representative and Editor for Strife Blog. A French and Japanese War Studies graduate; he is currently working for a London start-up specialised in cryptography. His interests lie in cybersecurity, energy security and other emerging security issues.