TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Population Shields
April 13, 2015

The Islamic State’s Population Shields

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• The challenge of the coming months and year won’t be how to defeat the Islamic State, it will be how to do so without defeating the future of the people it has terrorized most

• The Islamic State has shifted its tactics in the face of persistent airstrikes and pressure that are reducing its capabilities in eastern Syria as well as in parts of central and northern Iraq

• Fighters from the group stormed into Yarmuk refugee camp near Damascus, Syria, in part due to some of its fighters’ previous affiliation with the camp but also because it offers a sanctuary from coalition airstrikes and a population that can’t be evacuated to clear the way for a massive assault

• The Islamic State can’t militarily beat well-equipped and focused units such as those in Tikrit, which was largely evacuated; the group will seek to gain and hold vulnerable population centers as human shields in the coming months to avoid the full weight of military operations against it.

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Much of the geography of Iraq and parts of Syria plays against the Islamic State’s offensive aspirations, as it is largely characterized by an archipelago of population centers connected by limited and vital travel nodes. Pinned down by persistent airstrikes, the group is unable to move openly in some areas of eastern Syria and central Iraq, while it remains able to move in areas less conducive to coalition airstrikes, such as those in Syria still under Assad regime control or close enough to its modern air defenses. As the group faces ever more pressure in central and northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria due to the vise of coalition air power and improving Iraqi, Kurdish, and Shi’a militia forces, it will seek to turn the geography to its favor.

The Islamic State will likely look to accomplish this in part by creating human shields out of entire towns and refugee camps such as Yarmuk in Syria. The Islamic State lost in Tikrit because the town was relatively free of a large civilian population that would keep the full military reach of its opponents at bay. The Assad regime has shown no reluctance to avoid mass casualties but it has also shown itself as unable to defeat the Islamic State or any other opponent outright. Its barrel bombs recruit more people to the Islamic State in Syria than any social media campaign could hope to achieve; unlike Assad, coalition forces understand this and won’t destroy a people in order to hurt the group. The group’s last stalling tactic is to use the humanity of its opponents to sustain its own inhumanity. It needs to create another enemy greater than itself, and airstrikes against civilian populations would serve its propagandistic purposes nicely.

In Syria, the Islamic State might tactically fear the Assad regime but it is strategically terrified of the coalition, because the coalition alone can substantially weaken the group and strengthen its opponents at the same time. The concern in the coming months of fighting is that as it finds itself increasingly constrained in some areas, the Islamic State will work to create no-fire zones among exceedingly vulnerable population centers. This will create a dilemma for planners intent on moving ahead ‘on-schedule’ against the Islamic State. The tension between moving now against the Islamic State to save those under its control and waiting until the circumstances and capabilities are sufficient to better ensure victory will only grow in the coming months. The Islamic State is hoping to split the middle and ensure a rushed and bloody attempt that alienates the very people the Iraqis and coalition forces are trying to save. Bombing by outside forces to remove a truly despicable enemy has never generated a positive connection between the bombers and the bombed. The Islamic State’s future depends on exploiting that fact.

Yarmuk presents a particularly troublesome challenge. Coalition airstrikes are off the table, and the Assad regime for now has more interest in increasing the suffering of the people in the camp and highlighting the danger of groups such as the Islamic State than it does in fighting a threat so close to the capital. Its entire battle plan rests on letting its opponents become more extreme and violent than itself, a strategy that the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra are furthering even as they battle Syrian military forces.

If the Islamic State can hold parts of Yarmuk and begin to infect the vulnerable population with its ideology (sadly, the camp is no stranger to extremism, but a sustained Islamic State control is entirely different), it will create a situation in which the cure—besieging a refugee camp—is almost worse than the disease, leaving tens of thousands of people to experience the worst future imaginable. The Islamic State has gone from deceptively offering a better alternative to accurately threatening far worse, forcing many different actors, internal and external, to decide how to respond.

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