The jihadist group has been driven from its last areas of control, but it survives. In the coming months, it will both shift its strategy and try to capitalize on continuing instability.
ISIS has suffered the loss of the last area it controlled in Syria, the pocket in the Al-Shaafah-Al-Susah-Hajin triangle, after fierce battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces supported by the US-led international coalition. ISIS’s situation in Syria now resembles its situation in Iraq, where its area of control has shrunk as ISIS elements scatter into deserts and caves.
However, in spite of all the losses ISIS has suffered, its ideology continues to find followers, and has elements that at least at the present time do not seem to have weakened, especially the idea that Sunnis are being victimized in Iraq and Syria. As long as this grievance exists, ISIS and Al-Qaeda will continue to survive.
So where will the group, and its ideology, go next?
ISIS will go back to its initial methods.
ISIS will resume its old strategy, which is to return to the deserts and caves of Iraq and Syria and wage the style of war it knows so well – a war of attrition against its enemies.
ISIS will not change its confrontational approach towards all its enemies, near and far, and will try to eliminate these enemies in an attempt to advance inside areas where Syrian opposition factions have influence in Idlib and the northern Aleppo countryside. The animosity between ISIS and the other rebel factions and groups is deeply-rooted, and clashes have been particularly bloody in those areas.
ISIS will re-evaluate its approach and image.
After their failure to manage the population and after losing their reputation during their years of control, due to their severity in applying Sharia law, the leadership of ISIS will not be thinking – at least during the coming decade – about regaining control over cities or subjecting the population to their rule. The group will need to make a critical re-evaluation of their approach and improve their image among Sunnis, and this effort will take years.
It is likewise not possible for them to go back to ruling the cities under the same name and with the same leadership. ISIS will reform its ranks and rearm those who were greatly weakened after the coalition strikes against them, especially in its last pocket in Baghouz.
ISIS will try to capitalize on resentment against the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Both the Bedouin Arabs and factions loyal to Turkey have a tense, sometimes hostile, relationship with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The collective resentment in SDF-controlled areas, and the instability and insecurity clashes that comes from clashes between the groups, creates a favourable environment for ISIS, through which it can make the most of circumstances in order to restructure its cells and impose control.
ISIS will bet on a conflict with HTS and groups close to Al-Qaeda in Idlib.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is now pressuring ISIS factions in Idlib, since it considers them to be more dangerous than the regime. In the past few months, HTS has announced the destruction of dozens of ISIS cells in Idlib and the capture of hundreds. Likewise, ISIS cells in Idlib were behind most of the killing operations targeting the HTS leadership and others from the opposition factions.
However, ISIS can move around and cross the Euphrates Shield’s areas by paying smuggling money to those factions that are not hostile to ISIS ideologically in the way that HTS is, which makes it easier for ISIS to be present in those regions.