ISIS’ ultimate goal has been claimed to be the establishment of a ‘global caliphate’, by its propaganda machine. In the fifth issue of its multi-language Dabiq magazine, ISIS draws a so-called ‘caliphate’ that includes Rome, together with Makkah, Madinah, and Jerusalem, that covers all eastern and western extents of the Earth. Jessica Lewis McFate, Research Director of Institute for the Study of War (ISW), emphasizes on the two goals of ISIS’ expansion strategy in the report which is titled “ISIS Defense in Iraq and Syria: Countering an Adaptive Enemy” and was published in May 2015.
According to McFate, ISIS, first, supports its defense inside Iraq and Syria and second, seeks the literal expansion of the caliphate: “ISIS announced operations to expand to Libya, Sinai, and other corners of the Arab world in late 2014[...] The timing of this announced expansion supported ISIS’ momentum while it faced counter-attacks inside Iraq and Syria. Global expansion is a motif that ISIS desires to propagate at times when it is experiencing tactical losses. Expansion into new territory is therefore a defensive supporting operation, but it is nevertheless also a concrete operational plan to make its caliphate larger.”
Three geographic rings of ISIS’ expansion
Despite its recent losses in Syria and Iraq, ISIS still seems not to change its main strategy. The ISW report outlines ISIS’ expansion strategy across three geographic rings: the Interior Ring in Iraq and Sham, the Near Abroad Ring in the wider Middle East and North Africa, and the Far Abroad Ring in Europe, Asia and US. After indicating these three geographic rings, McFate underlines three strategic overarching goals of ISIS’ strategic framework: to defend inside Iraq and Syria, to expand operations regionally, and to disrupt and recruit on a global scale.
Iraq, which is the centre of ISIS’ caliphate, is the keystone of ISIS’ future. The ISW report explains Iraq’s key position in the agenda of ISIS by referring to the Near and Abroad Rings of the militant group: “Iraq will likely remain the epicenter of ISIS’ campaign as long as its current leadership is alive. The physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria is still the source of ISIS’ power, unless ISIS’ operations in the Near or Far Abroad achieve momentum that is independent of ISIS’ battlefield success in Iraq and Syria. Iraq in particular holds unique and lasting significance for ISIS that it cannot easily replicate elsewhere.”
Belt strategy of ISIS
In Iraq, Baghdad’s suburban roads, that connect the towns to the capital, are referred to as the “Baghdad Belts.” Al Qaeda of Iraq (AQI), the group that ISIS stems from, used the Baghdad Belts effectively. According to McFate’s analysis, ISIS has adopted AQI’s belt strategy for capturing large cities in Iraq successively: “Abstractly, ISIS’ offensive belt framework represents a way to organize a battle plan around a principal city using dispersed units, informal tactics, and freedom of maneuver to compromise the main defenses of a conventional enemy. The Baghdad Belts emerged again in February 2013 when AQI, not yet reflagged as ISIS, shifted the geographical focus of its signature campaign of Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) from nationwide attacks across Iraq to a tight concentration in Baghdad.”
In major cities of Syria, ISIS clashes with Jabhat al Nusra (JN) and other Syrian rebel groups. Furthermore, the ISW report presumes that ISIS may adapt the belt strategy in Syria, especially in Aleppo and Damascus, where large suburban areas surround the city centres to take advantage of the current situation: “Syrian rebels and JN ousted ISIS from major cities and surrounding areas in January 2014, rejecting ISIS’ interpretation of Islamic law and lack of focus on defeating the Assad regime. ISIS likewise retreated into a low urban profile in Damascus in early 2014 due to similar pressures. ISIS did not set the terms of battle in the Syrian war the way it did in Iraq, and therefore ISIS has to fight around and through Syria’s wartime landscape on terms that other militant groups have set.”
ISIS’ weak resistance in Northern Syria
In Northern Syria, ISIS’ turn-over of Tal Abyad to forces of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the militias of the PYD (Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party) without strong resistance is a great exemplar of ISIS’ expansion strategy. Tal Abyad was previously held by ISIS from early 2014 and functioned as the centre of a major smuggling route to the group’s stronghold of Raqqa. Since the beginning of June 2015, YPG militants had been carrying out operations with the help of US-led coalition air strikes against ISIS in Tal Abyad. It is also claimed that ISIS has refused to capture Northern Syria due to its defeat in Kobane in January 2015. YPG forces regained their authority over Kobane, where they announced autonomy in 2013, after a siege by ISIS which lasted four months.