Never mind the Russians, IS is destroying itself

Never mind the Russians, IS is destroying itself
Analysis: A wave of mass killings by the Islamic State group in recent months highlights a growing desperation in the leadership every bit as deadly as Russian and US bombs.
6 min read
30 October, 2015
Thousands of Syrians are fleeing IS territory for Turkey and Europe [AFP]
The Islamic State group's popularity in Syria appears to be waning, as it tries to claw back control of its territories through a new campaign of terror.

This week it was revealed that another mass slaughter by the extremist group had taken place, involving the summary execution of 224 of the group's fighters.

The massacre took place three months ago, close to its self-declared capital, Raqqa in eastern Syria, a former "second-tier" commander in the group who recently defected told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Although the killings took place two months ago this - and other recent massacres - show their leaders are aware that they are no longer seen as the saviours of Raqqa.

The 224 dead were believed to be foreign fighters from Chechnya and Asian countries, and have been the backbone of IS' swift ground offensives.

They were suspected of attempting to defect to al-Nusra Front, and follows rumours that al-Qaeda's franchise in Syria is growing in popularity due to Russian air raids being aimed at them and other rebel groups - but not IS.

A group of 21 other foreign fighters from the Caucuses who were also suspected of attempting to flee the "caliphate" were mowed down by machine gunners in Aleppo province.

Mass killings

The Syrian Observatory puts the number of "executions" by the group at 3,518, including at least 1,910 civilians. 

Whereas before the IS murder machine had been directed at captured regime soldiers and militants, terror now appears aimed at local Syrians and fighters.

IS is facing renewed threats to its existence and cracks are appearing to show in the group's armour.
     Reports that foreign fighters are increasingly disillusioned with life in 'the caliphate' are common

Reports that foreign fighters are increasingly disillusioned with life in "the caliphate" are common.

"There are indications that foreign fighters are questioning their affiliation with the Islamic State," said Michael Stephens, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

"It isn't widespread in terms becoming a mass movement but I think it's very clear that we are starting to see indications that people are not from that region who have gone to fight for IS are becoming disenchanted and they are struggling to cope with these defections."

Although there have been some minor victories for the group in the north against rebel and regime forces, the al-Qaeda breakaway has not managed any spectacular military successes in recent months.

A month of heavy Russian bombing in Syria, falling almost exclusively on rebel-held towns and cities, has left IS militants in the north and east largely unscathed.

More surgical strikes by the US-led coalition at IS leadership and training camps have ground to a halt as Russian aircraft take control of the skies of Syria.

This lull in the bombing of Raqqa appears to have given IS a period of breathing space. 

It has allowed the extremists to direct their forces to defeating their rebel adversaries in Aleppo province, and cutting off the regime's lifeline to the southern Aleppo city.

But the focus on fighting rebels rather than the regime has led many fighters to question the reasons for fighting "other Muslims".
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The IS leadership still refers to opposition groups - including al-Nusra Front - as "apostates", while most of its fighters are well aware that it is Bashar al-Assad's forces who are doing most of the killing in Syria.

"There's senseless violence which a lot of fighters consider un-Islamic… people didn't join to spend half of their time fighting other opposition groups, they went to Syria to fight Assad and Shia domination of the region," the defence analyst said.

"This really isn't what IS have been doing and it is not focusing its ire on [the regime] or Shia militias. So the reasons people went to Syria are not there and fighters are left disappointed."

Stephens said there was also a lot of unhappiness among Western recruits about the badly-run and crude systems IS have put in place.

"A lot of foreign fighters can't adjust culturally… and the quality of life that was promised to them has not been delivered, [so] ultimately the reality rather than the myth is hitting home, and as a result people have had enough," said Stephens.

Ideals not values

While there is no denying the aptitude and revolutionary insightfulness of IS military commanders, their ability to run civilian matters have been largely disastrous.

The economy is in tatters, and recent efforts to introduce a gold currency suggest amateur and impulsive responses to their economic woes.

Meanwhile, the health system - which was once referred to by IS idealists as being a mirror of the UK's National Health Service - has collapsed.

Clinics for women that are staffed by men have been banned in Raqqa by the Islamist extremists, while reports emerged on Wednesday that the last hospital in Deir Az-Zour province has closed its doors.

Drugs and anaesthesia are said to be in short supply, while hopes that a flood of Muslim doctors and nurses would arrive in IS territories have never materialised.

Ironically, Russia and the regime are also appear to be targeting hospitals in rebel-held territories - making the overall situation for Syrians grim.

But the fact that in IS territories public hospitals lie in waste while the group's leadership is treated with relatively high-standards highlights a discrepancy in its claims of moral leadership.

It also underlines a very apparent gulf in wealth between the leadership and subjects in their territory, and most Syrians understand clearly that the projection of IS' utopia to the outside world is shrouded with lies.

Although there is little chance of a major mass uprising by the civilian population due to a potentially catastrophic responses from the brutal police force, it does highlight the relative weakness of the group.

IS runs on a frugal budget, Stephens said, and needs around $2 billion a year to break even.

It allows IS to channel revenues from oil, ransoms and stolen artefacts into its military and maintaining the "un-Islamic" frivolous lifestyles for the group's leaders.

Although IS book-keepers struggle to manage the finances of the "state", it is able to cut costs in civilian infrastructure and services through suppression and channel resources into the miltiary.
     But it means that if we imagine the near future, IS will no longer be able to rely on popular support

That is why, despite coalition air raids on oil installations, on a military front IS is still far from being a spent force.

The US-backed rebel-Kurdish militia alliance is far from being the threat it has portrayed itself to be, although some analysts suggest better peformance can ve expected from these groups with better intelligence, new US weapons and air support.

However, defending "the caliphate" from attack on all sides, signs of desperate recruitment drives inside its territory, and a flailing economy make an implosion almost an inevitability.

IS' worst enemy appears to be itself, and it seems unwilling to realise the backlash its terror campaign has put it in a position where discontent is simmering - although not at a stage where open rebellion is possible.

But it means that if we imagine the near future, IS will no longer be able to rely on popular support - and without an inexhaustible supply of manpower and money, its project is doomed.

Even its capable and die-hard supporters have proven unable to defeat experienced opposition groups such as the Kurds and Free Syrian Army that offer more representative leadership and goals.

In the end, the fate of IS might be decided by the fact that its population and ranks are voting with their feet and fleeing the territory.

Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @pmcloughlin9