|ISIS's 'Amaq News Agency press release on Istanbul bombing|
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken responsibility for a series of attacks over the last few days, including the New Year's Eve attack on a nightclub in Istanbul, Turkey, that killed 39 people and at least five separate bombings in Baghdad, Iraq, that killed over 60 people. Hundreds of others were injured in the attacks.
This is my translation of ISIS's press release claiming responsibility for the Istanbul attack. I tried to keep it as close to the original Arabic as possible.
‘Amaq – Fighter from the Islamic State Conducted the Istanbul Attack
Istanbul – ‘Amaq Agency: A reliable source says to ‘Amaq that a fighter of the Islamic State conducted the Istanbul attack which occurred at a nightclub in which a New Year celebration was being held the day before (Saturday).
According to the source, upwards of 150 Christian partygoers – among them Westerners from countries of the international coalition – were killed or injured as a result of the nightclub attack with hand grenades and a machine gun, and the source mentioned that some of the injured threw themselves into the waters of the Bosphorus after being fired on.
[The source] mentioned that the Islamic State called on its fighters and supporters to mount attacks against Turkey, which entered the cycle of conflict with the Islamic State.
I will leave the descriptions of the attacks and the subsequent investigations to the professional law enforcement authorities in Turkey and Iraq - unfortunately, both have extensive experience in these matters.
The investigations will tell the who (although I think we know), what, where and when. What is more important is the why - why is ISIS mounting attacks in Istanbul and Baghdad?
That was a question put to me twice today - once by Wolf Blitzer and again by Ana Cabrera. Is this an act of desperation or a sign of strength? Being the consummate analyst that I am, I responded:"Both." Jesting aside, it is still true.
The reasons for the attacks - in both countries - are the same. ISIS is under tremendous pressure as they try to defend the encircled city of Mosul, Iraq, and are preparing for the inevitable assault on its main Syrian stronghold of al-Raqqah.
ISIS is also demonstrating that as a terrorist group (they would not use that terminology), they have the capability to launch lethal attacks across the region, that they remain relevant even in potential military defeat.
Looking at this from the perspective of the ISIS military commander, I would assess the ability to defend Mosul against the U.S.-coalition supported Iraqi forces that are arrayed against it and currently attacking the city, as poor. The Iraqis appear to have the political will to allocate the necessary resources to retake the city from ISIS.
ISIS's horrific attacks, mostly targeting Shi'a Iraqis in Baghdad, are meant to break the will of the Iraqi government, to demonstrate to the people that the government cannot provide adequate security. ISIS hopes that the people will demand that Iraqi forces be used to protect them.
ISIS is betting that the people of Baghdad are more concerned about their own security than the liberation of Mosul. While at one time, I believed that to be true, the situation has changed as the Iraqi forces have improved their capabilities and have been able to push ISIS back in both the Tigris and Euphrates valleys.
According to the original battle plan for Mosul, the Iraqis were going to encircle the city, then launch the attack. Just before the operation was to begin, there was a shift in tactics - the Iraqis decided to leave the city's western approaches/exits open to allow an escape route for ISIS fighters wishing to depart the area.
I criticized this on the air, as I felt that the Iraqis were wrong in their assessment that ISIS fighters would leave the city for Syria. The Iraqis, of course, were hoping this was the correct scenario, since the exodus of ISIS fighters would make their retaking of Mosul that much easier. It also would transfer the ISIS problem out of Iraq and into Syria.
As many of the military analysts (including me) from all of the networks predicted, ISIS used the western opening as a resupply/reinforcement route. It took weeks for the Iraqis to deploy an Iranian-backed Shi'a Popular Mobilization Unit to cut that line of communication.
The lack of an escape route has virtually sealed ISIS's fighters' fate - they will now fight to the death. We are seeing that level of commitment now. Conversely, we also see the Iraqi forces suffering horrific casualties as they slowly work their way into the city. Just this week, the Iraqis announced that they had just started "Phase Two" of the Mosul operation. In reality, they were stalled for two weeks as their casualties exceeded anyone's assessments.
It will continue to be a slow, bloody process as Iraqi forces - army, police and special units - claw their way from suburb to suburb, block to block, street to street, and at times even house to house. In the end, however, I believe that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has the political will to see this through.
In the end, Iraq wins this one. That does not mean ISIS or its inevitable follow-on Islamist group is gone permanently, but the current scourge will be defeated.
Now to Syria - and the ISIS "capital" of al-Raqqah.
The battle for al-Raqqah is taking shape. There is an American-backed Kurdish-Sunni Arab alliance called the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) merely 20 miles away from the city and advancing every day. At the same time, there is also a Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) force currently about 90 miles away fighting for the city of al-Bab.
The United States and Turkey are at odds over which should be the force that retakes al-Raqqah. See my earlier article about this issue, The coming assault on al-Raqqah - a political minefield.
ISIS's strategy in attacking Turkey is similar to their strategy for the bombings in Baghdad, although it has only a slightly greater chance of success. By making Turkey's incursion into Syria and supporting the fight against ISIS as bloody and painful as possible, they hope to create what guerrilla groups call a "significant emotional event."
ISIS believes that if they can create enough mayhem and bloodshed in cities like Istanbul and Ankara, the Turkish people will demand that the government stop its support for the FSA and withdraw its forces back to Turkey. Without Turkish air, artillery, special forces and advisory support, the FSA will not be able to take on ISIS.
Ordinarily, I would give this strategy a chance at success, but in post-coup attempt Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has amassed such political power that I doubt he will respond to popular calls for him to reassess his intervention in Syria.
Bottom line: Mosul and al-Raqqah will fall and ISIS will be forced to alter its structure, like emerging as more of an Islamist group more along the model of al-Qa'idah. It's terrorist attacks will continue and likely increase as they morph into a new organization.