Written by: Daniel Yun
On March 23rd, 2019, U.S.-backed coalition forces finally captured the last remaining Syrian town, Baghuz, held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A once mighty caliphate, the terrorist organization has wreaked havoc and terror in the Middle East for the last five years. In response, the United States and coalition partners unleashed Operation Inherent Resolve to contain and ultimately extinguish ISIS in the Middle East. Despite the successful military operation, ISIS has brutally murdered thousands of people, including six American troops, and have been unorthodox and shrewd in their tactics. As the United States tries to shift its focus away from the Middle East, leading national security officials must reflect on three key lessons learned from the conventional conflict against ISIS.
First, ISIS was able to use technology to their advantage against coalition forces. They used quadcopters, a type of drone that can be bought off the shelf and have served in many roles ranging from reconnaissance to close air support. In an ISIS propaganda video, a quadcopter dropped a mortar on a convoy. While the mortar did not cause casualties, the element of surprise caused widespread panic and disruption. Although quadcopters have no armour, they are very small, agile, and can fly beyond the operator’s line of sight. As a result, shooting these drones down can be very challenging. According to the Iraqi government, ISIS’ drone attacks have killed more than six Iraqi soldiers and wounded more than fifty government personnel. While the academic and military communities have concern over the danger of these drones, the United States’ military does not have a weapon system in its arsenal specifically designed to combat the quadcopters.
Second, although the loss of Baghuz was a setback, ISIS still retains territory in other regions such as West Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. It is even gaining territory in northeast Nigeria as a result of the country’s instability and lack of counter-terrorism forces. In the Philippines, meanwhile, Filipino troops are engaged in a fierce battle against ISIS forces on the southern island of Mindanao. By analyzing the countries in which ISIS is present, a common pattern emerges — as long as instability and mistreatment of Muslims are present in a region, ISIS is able to withstand threats and regrow its caliphate in that region.
Finally, ISIS has highlighted the challenges of fighting in urban settings. In the battle for Raqqa and other Syrian cities, coalition forces struggled against ISIS due to the organization’s various innovative tactics. ISIS has taken full advantage of the urban geography in cities they controlled by digging tunnels to enhance mobility. Additionally, ISIS has built vehicles known as SVBIEDS for use in narrow roads. SVBIEDS are civilian vehicles outfitted with armour and camouflage, allowing them to deceptively attack coalition forces. The United States military has fought in urban areas before, but has neglected to make it a priority to develop sophisticated and realistic urban warfare training for its troops. With more than two-thirds of the world population moving into cities, it is imperative that the United States implements urban warfare strategies to prepare for future conflicts.The continued civil war in Syria and Yemen provides the opportunity for ISIS to restart its caliphate in the Middle East. Although the victory in Baghus is important, it is only a momentary pause. Sun Tzu, a Chinese strategist once said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” At some point in time, ISIS will try to regain their former territory in the Middle East. The United States must learn key lessons from today’s conflict to be successful and mitigate damage from other rogue groups in the future.