While the Islamic State celebrated the first anniversary of their self-proclaimed caliphate last week with a flood of ever-more elaborately brutal execution videos, the group finds itself at a crossroads in Syria.
It was long expected that a year after the fall of Mosul in June 2014 Islamic State (IS) militants would aim to seize another major Arab city as a Ramadan gift to its supporters and a demonstration of the group's ever-growing power.
Instead, the capture of the vital Tal Abyad border crossing between Turkey and Syria earlier in June, by an alliance of Kurdish YPG and moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, supported by US airstrikes, has thrown IS onto the defensive in its own stronghold of Raqqa province.
Now the YPG and its rebel allies control more than 30 percent of Raqqa governorate, and are within 30 miles of the caliphate's de facto capital of Raqqa, with just a few desert hamlets standing inbetween.
Photo by Frederick Paxton.
Last fall, IS propaganda boasted that its fighters would celebrate the feast of Eid al-Adha in October in the Kurdish city of Kobane on the Turkish border. Less than a year later, it seems likely that the FSA rebels who fought alongside the Kurdish YPG during the four-month siege of Kobane will celebrate Eid al-Fitr on July 19 within artillery range of Raqqa itself — a sudden turn of fortune's wheel remarkable even for Syria.
In lieu of meaningful territorial gains, it seems likely that, at least over Ramadan, IS will devote resources to attention-grabbing acts of terrorism, such as bloody assaults on civilians in Kobane and European tourists in Tunisia, in a continuation of its hallmark strategy of masking military setbacks with grisly acts of theater against soft targets.
Until this month, the Tal Abyad border crossing and the Jarablus crossing further west could be viewed as the teats from which the caliphate in Syria suckled. From the Turkish side, a steady flow of fresh recruits trickled across more or less unhindered. There were also vast quantities of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, semi-finished metal tubes used in the production of homemade munitions, and consumer goods, such as Nutella and Snickers, that Western IS fighters so like to display themselves feasting on in Raqqa.
From the Syrian side, IS could trade gas from its Syrian oilfields to Turkish black market buyers, raising, it was believed, millions of dollars per month in revenue. Without control of Tal Abyad, the cost of food and essential goods will rocket in Raqqa, the supply of fresh volunteers will dwindle, leading to a greater reliance on local conscripts. The essential lifeline to Turkey will wither to the longer route to Jarablus, itself a likely target of future YPG offensives and sandwiched between the Kurds and the Aleppo rebels.
Watch the VICE News documentary, Ghosts of Aleppo here:
Yet despite the body blow received from the YPG, IS remains a powerful and capable actor within the Syrian war. The caliphate encompasses half of Syria's land mass, though admittedly the thinly-populated eastern desert half and the impressive black sweep on maps mostly translates to miles of empty sand and occasional mud-brick villages in reality.
Nevertheless, control of eastern Syria, including the Euphrates river valley, provides IS with a safe space in which to regroup and plan new offensives. It is probably a mistake to view the edges of the caliphate as an intended border along the lines of modern nation states. Instead, the fringes of IS control should be viewed as ever-shifting frontier zones, constantly expanding and contracting as the weakness or strength of its enemies allow.
Syrian Kurdish activists throw food to Yazidi refugees from Sinjar as they arrive in Syria after a dangerous trek through the Islamic State-held desert in August 2014. Photo by Frederick Paxton.
IS has so far counterbalanced its relative weakness in defense with an aggressive determination to counterattack elsewhere, constantly probing along the edges of its control zones for enemy weaknesses that can suddenly be exploited. With coalition air power likely making any determined assault on Kurdish forces in either Syria or Iraq costly and futile, IS will most probably aim to gain territory at the expense of weaker actors in the conflict; and at this stage, there is no actor in Syria more vulnerable to IS than Assad's regime.
There is a widely-held belief in Syria and abroad that for much of the conflict, the Assad government and the group that evolved into IS refrained from attacking each other, as each benefited from each other's presence.
While the Syrian rebels were locked in conflict with the regime, IS found itself able to pick off weak rebel groups one by one, assassinate major rebel commanders — even of theoretically jihadist allies — and consolidate control of much of northern Syria while escaping the aerial bombardment that has devastated rebel-held areas.
For the Assad government's part, the presence of IS and its self-publicized excesses helped consolidate the propaganda narrative the regime has successfully promoted since the first peaceful demonstrations in 2011, namely that the opposition consist solely of barbaric jihadists and that Assad is a valuable bulwark against extremism.
In summer 2014, this mutually profitable détente broke down when IS seized both the government's Division 17 base on the outskirts of Raqqa and the Tabqa airbase, and slaughtered the surrendering garrison. Buoyed by these successes and the vast arsenal of modern weaponry looted from Iraqi forces fleeing Mosul, IS seemingly determined that Assad had outlived his usefulness, and could now be added to their long list of targets.
Children play in a newly formed bomb crater filled with water to cool down in the summer heat. Photo by Frederick Paxton.
Like the sorcerer's apprentice, Assad has since watched helplessly as his former tool wreaks havoc across his dwindling area of control, pushing closer and closer to Damascus. The government's abandonment of the strategic and historic town of Palmyra to IS without a fight has revealed the bankruptcy of Assad's propaganda narrative — far from being a bulwark against IS, the Syrian Arab Army suffered a humiliating defeat even in the limited role of museum guards.
Through taking Palmyra and pushing further into the Homs desert, IS has positioned itself carefully for future offensive action against the regime heartlands of western Syria, with Homs, Hama, and Damascus all now threatened by the group's expansion. Unlike the YPG, the government forces can expect little prospect of coalition airstrikes rolling back IS advances, and will pay for this weakness and isolation with the group's renewed attention.
Watch the VICE News documentary, Peshmerga vs. the Islamic State: The Road to Mosul here:
Already, the government-controlled half of the northeastern city of Hasakah has come under IS assault, and the government-controlled half of Deir Ezzor, in Syria's far east and surrounded by the caliphate's territory for hundreds of miles, can expect to fend off renewed IS assaults.
While the origins of IS can be found in the chaos of Iraq under US occupation, the birth of the caliphate is purely a product of the war in Syria, the international neglect of which allowed the group to take root and build its dark vision of a state.
The group thrives on chaos and preys on weakness, and with the rebels resurgent in both northwest and southern Syria and the Kurds now the dominant actor across the north of the country, the caliphate's most profitable area of expansion is currently the regime's shrinking belt of territory.
While Syria is a war that consistently overturns the assumptions of analysts, it is not hard to foresee the group making new gains at Assad's expense, and consolidating the growth of its franchises as far afield as Nigeria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
The IS slogan of baqiya wa tatamaddad — it remains and expands — was well-chosen. The caliphate has survived its first year of existence, and as long as it is allowed to exist in Syria, it will continue to expand, both there and abroad.
Follow Aris Roussinos on Twitter: @arisroussinos