February 24, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Ebbs and Flows of the Islamic State

• On February 23, Libyan media reported that forces loyal to the House of Representative government retook parts of Benghazi from the Islamic State

• In Syria, the terrorist group seized the town of Khanaser, cutting off—at least temporarily—the only government supply line into Aleppo 

• The Islamic State’s recent losses and gains across a broad region highlight the nature of the fight against it, in which momentum in one area is not replicated in another 

• The international anti-Islamic State coalition is still dependent on weak or non-existent local governments to not just displace the group, but replace it.


The so-called Islamic State has good days and bad days—often on the same day. The recent arc of the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq has been one of decline, but it is not without sudden gains offsetting losses. Headlines declaring the group's retreats are quickly replaced by those noting its advances. The shifting tactical environment has led to assessments either too optimistic or too pessimistic, given the common perception of the Islamic State as a monolithic force.

The events of February 23 provide an example. In Libya, reports heralded rare good news in the eastern city of Benghazi. Armed forces under the command of General Khalifa Haftar, fighting for the internationally recognized House of Representatives (HoR) government in Tobruk, retook parts of the coastal city from fighters of the Islamic State. The Libyan forces captured the port and an important supply line, dealing the Islamic State a meaningful loss in a country in which it has been relatively ascendant of late.

The achievement in Benghazi is another sign that pressure against the group in Libya will increase in the air and on the ground, despite the absence of effective governance necessary for the country to become a stable counterterrorism partner. Last week's airstrike in Sabratha that killed 49 suspected Islamic State fighters was followed up by new reports that the Italian government has approved the use of an air base in Sicily to launch U.S. drone strikes in Libya

In Syria, however, the Islamic State made a sudden advance in Aleppo, seizing the town of Khanaser. This conquest reverses, at least temporarily, the group's string of defeats in northern Syria. Taking Khanaser puts the only government supply line into Aleppo at risk. If there is indeed a ceasefire on February 27, the Islamic State certainly will not notice, as it will be continuously targeted by both the regime and the anti-Islamic State coalition. 

While the Islamic State’s tactical losses are a prerequisite for its ultimate defeat, the global fight against the group depends far more on local factors than on an international coalition. This dependency tempers even significant military accomplishments; without meaningful local reforms and progress, all victories against the group will remain tactical.

The Islamic State and its previous iterations have extensive experience with tactical defeats and strategic victories. The United States and Iraq achieved a tactical victory over al-Qaeda in Iraq—with far more military and financial resources than will ever be available in the current fight against the group—in order to buy time for a stability that never came. The current administration in Baghdad is less divisive than its predecessor, but social, political, and economic progress has not risen to the level needed to turn tactical gains into lasting ones.

The situation is much worse in Syria and Libya, where there are few realistic chances for societal and governmental advances to follow up on any near-term military gains. Displacing the Islamic State has proven quite difficult in Syria, and to a lesser degree in Libya. Ultimately, effectively replacing the Islamic State with good governance is a task that has so far proven impossible in Iraq and will likely prove as elusive in Syria and Libya. 


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