ISIS’s financial and military resources have also shrunk as U.S. airstrikes have destroyed the group’s materiel and capacity to refine oil. The Islamic State is still able to sell unrefined oil on the black market, but the difference between the price it can set for unrefined versus refined oil is significant. Reports this week indicated that ISIS expects a $250-million surplus in its $2-billion budget, but these figures are entirely self-reported: Accountants aren’t exactly lining up to get into ISIS-controlled territory and perform an outside audit.
ISIS, moreover, lacks an industrial base capable of sustaining its military efforts (Ninawa and Salahaddin governorates have a number of factories, but the group has a shortage of qualified technical personnel to man and supply them). It cannot build its own heavy armor, armored personnel carriers, Humvees, anti-tank weapons, surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft weapons, or radar stations. Only through military raids can the organization capture the equipment it needs for battle, and the last time it did this successfully was in August.
All of these setbacks seriously threaten ISIS because of its reliance on momentum—a dependency articulated in a recent issue of the group’s English-language magazine Dabiq. An article carrying the byline of the British journalist John Cantlie, ISIS’s forcefully conscripted propagandist, noted that “as an entity enjoys success, it attracts more to its fold, thereby causing expansion and breeding more success until it achieves some sort of critical mass, the point at which it becomes self-perpetuating, self-sustaining.” ISIS is not yet self-sustaining. Drawing a steady flow of zealous recruits remains a necessity for the group, not a luxury.
Nevertheless, to borrow President Obama’s words, the United States and its allies are far closer to degrading ISIS than destroying it. The Islamic State is currently positioning itself to attack the Al-Asad airbase in Anbar province, where U.S. military advisors are now located, and such an assault could amplify calls in the United States for an American withdrawal from the region. ISIS could conceivably launch a major cross-border attack against Jordan or move into Suwayda, the only majority-Druze province in Syria, carrying out massacres comparable to those that the group committed in Sinjar or Hit. In the latter scenario, the Islamic State would be goading the U.S. to intervene militarily on what could be seen as the side of Bashar al-Assad’s supporters. ISIS could yet seize the Iraqi cities of Ramadi or Haditha, which would represent powerful symbolic gains for the group and disasters in terms of lives lost, but would do little to improve the Islamic State’s overall strategic position. Even if ISIS lost all its Iraq holdings (which won’t happen anytime soon), the organization would simply be back to where it started before the June offensive, hunkered down in its stronghold of Raqqa, Syria. Even if its “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is killed, and even if large portions of the organization subsequently reconcile with—and return to—al-Qaeda, a core is likely to persist for a long time under the ISIS label.