Hassan Hassan writes: The Islamic State’s stunning advances in Syria over the past month defy basic military instincts. Consider, for example, the group’s remarkable turn of fortunes in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor in recent months, where ISIS—as the group was formerly known—all but vanished in February after local rebels joined forces to batter the remaining ISIS strongholds in the province. Rebel groups elsewhere had likewise planned in May to push against ISIS’s last fortress in Raqqa, another eastern province, so as to drive the group out of the country entirely. Yet ISIS, or the Islamic State as it is now called, is now back with a vengeance.
The Islamic State is now on the offensive in much of Syria, especially in the east and north. If the group manages to retake the ground it had lost after most of the rebel groups declared war against it in January and February, this is likely to indurate its staying power in Syria. And there are signs that the group might eventually consolidate its presence in the east and make inroads into the north, especially as it seems to be following new strategies during its latest push.
The group has been focusing on negotiations, rather than only brute force, which in large part explains its striking successes of late. Although the Islamic State has attacked a few cities and towns in Deir ez-Zor and forcefully displaced its residents, it tends to do so only with towns that had bled it before, such as Khisham and Shuhail (the latter was long perceived as a stronghold of al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra). In other villages and towns, the Islamic State has sent envoys to negotiate a deal in which local fighters surrender, pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and implement sharia, and in exchange the Islamic State spares residents from any harm. The terms of these deals vary from one area to another. [Continue reading…]