The strategy of isolating Raqqa has proven to be militarily efficient, as the areas controlled by ISIS are decreasing each day. As the US administration has declared that their forces will soon carry out military operations inside Raqqa city proper, this raises the question: what are the potential responses that will be taken by ISIS?
First scenario: The Reverse Move – where ISIS fighters will flee the city by taking advantage of the large and difficult to control borders between Syria and Iraq in order to return to strongholds in Iraq.
Second scenario: Hiding – This strategy has been used by ISIS on multiple occasions, both in Manbij and Al-bab, whereby the group’s fighters escaped the city by hiding among fleeing civilians. This happened recently in Mosul as well when ISIS fighters managed to flee the city disguised as civilians.
Third scenario: Escaping to more Stable Areas – During the past few years, ISIS has managed to build relationships with people living in areas of Syria that are more stable. This scenario is the most likely one to be chosen for use by the group at present.
Fourth scenario: Foreign Fighters Return to their Home Countries – This scenario has been used by several terrorist groups that preceded ISIS, such as when hundreds of foreign Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan went back to their home countries. In ISIS’ case, many foreign fighters have already chosen this option, such as Tunisians involved with the group.
Fifth scenario: Transforming into Dormant Terror Groups aka “Redeployment of Forces” – This method remodels the terrorist group to rely on only engaging in terrorist attacks from time to time. When the battle for Mosul battle was first launched, ISIS declared conducting 157 suicide bombings in Baghdad.
It is noteworthy that most of ISIS leaders have pointed to the possibility of their state collapsing, but noted at the same time that their priority is for their ideology to persist.
In conclusion, all these scenarios are possible, but not definitive. Their use depends on circumstances in both Syria and Iraq and the group’s ability to use existing radical Shiite and nationalist Kurdish groups to further the survival of ISIS fighters and ideology.