In the two weeks preceding November 13, 2015, Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), organised three massive terrorist attacks. First, an explosive device was placed on a Russian airliner carrying 224 passengers, causing it to explode midair and crash in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Second, twin suicide bombings struck a predominantly Shiite residential area in southern Beirut, killing 43 people. And finally, six gun attacks and suicide bombings across Paris killed more than 130 people. This chain of events has been unprecedented, both, in terms of territorial extent (from Asia to Europe) and intensity since the formation of Daesh in April 2013.
Why has Daesh intensified its terrorist attacks?
With the emergence of a de facto alliance between Iran and Russia, the war in Syria has begun to turn against Daesh. For instance, a two-year Daesh siege on the strategic Kweiris airbase near Aleppo, which had been under the terror group’s control since 2013, was broken on November 11. The Kweiris defeat has the potential to create significant problems for Daesh because, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Syrian army now “threatens communications between [Daesh]’s so called capital in Raqqa and its largest military front in Aleppo”. Reports from the war maintain that “taking this airport back from siege means they [the Syrian army] can advance to [Daesh] areas”.
Daesh has also suffered a significant defeat in Iraq. On November 13, 2015, it was announced that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces had recaptured the city of Sinjar in northern Iraq from Daesh. It is reported that, “As a result of the offensive, Kurdish forces were able to cut Highway 47, which is a strategic route between Raqqa in Syria and the Iraqi city of Mosul — the main [Daesh] bastions” in Iraq.
These developments, along with other, smaller, retreats by Daesh, primarily in Syria, can have a detrimental effect on the group — not only from a military perspective but, more importantly, from a psychological point of view as well. As a result of the intensified fighting on several fronts, Daesh is losing its multi-national personnel and faces an urgent need to replace these losses by recruiting new fighters. These defeats, as well as the potential for further setbacks, however, have called their power and their fate into question. This can significantly affect the group’s stature and image as well as reduce its ability to recruit new fighters. Daesh needed to attract maximum amount of media attention to overshadow its current losses. The western media, albeit unwittingly, effectively contributed to that goal by dedicating a huge amount of time to disseminating news related to the attacks, with an emphasis on the attacks in Paris.
Another major goal behind the recent attacks by Daesh, particularly the attacks in Paris, was to provoke fear and suspicion towards Muslims living in the West. Daesh hopes that this mistrust will encourage western governments to take a harsh stance against the Muslim community. Also, hate-acts in Paris could sharpen contradictions between the French populace (and by association westerners in general) and the Muslim community. Daesh expects that this backlash against Muslim communities will result in the formation of an enduring clash of civilisations through the activation of sleeper cells in the West and the enticement of more recruits to violence. The backlash will also serve to legitimise the reasoning behind potential recruits taking part to counter the ‘war’ against Islam.
The reality is that Syria is a perfect example of a Hobbesian atmosphere of “war of all against all”. In other words, the conflict with Daesh, until this very moment, is secondary to the competition between regional actors and global powers. The recent downing of the Russian fighter jet by Turkey is a clear manifestation of this Hobbesian climate. America and its regional allies are committed to the position that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad must leave, while Russia and Iran vehemently support Al Assad staying in power. In reality, a proxy war between the two camps aimed at increasing and consolidating influence in the region takes precedence over the war on Daesh.
During Daesh’s conquest of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, on May 17, the United States allowed the group’s armoured convoys to proceed uncontested towards Ramadi, even though a May 28 Bloomberg report noted that US intelligence and military officials “had significant intelligence about the pending [Daesh] offensive in Ramadi”.
The most acceptable explanation for this American position is that the White House is vacillating between confronting two threats: The advances made by Daesh and the perceived danger regarding the possible formation of an organised pro-Iranian paramilitary force in Iraq similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In a speech delivered on November 19, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate said: “We cannot view Iran and [Daesh] as separate challenges.” Another major obstacle to defeating Daesh is the flow of foreign fighters into the Syrian battlefield from Turkey’s southern borders. In the aforementioned speech, Hillary noted: “We should not stop pressing until Turkey, where most foreign fighters cross into Syria, finally locks down its border.”