More than 50 analysts at US Central Command have recently said that claims of the so-called Islamic State's weakness have been greatly exaggerated. If analysts' allegations are correct, maybe it's time to start asking the question everyone seems intent on avoiding: What happens if IS can't be defeated? Do we then have to acknowledge the possibility of an IS victory?
We're not talking about a global "convert or die" type of victory that would see the world consumed by the apocalyptic ambitions of IS's megalomaniacal leadership. Instead, what would a more plausible kind of "agree to disagree" or at least "agree to be mortal enemies" victory look like for IS? Perhaps something much more pragmatic, like being able to effectively govern the territories they already control and successfully protect the borders of their so-called caliphate.
From a certain perspective IS is already doing just that. They already carry out the essential day-to-day asks of any state: paying municipal salaries, issuing travel documents, and running schools and hospitals. However, once this kind of administration becomes the status quo, defeating IS becomes less about targeting leaders or shattering terror networks than about destroying an entire system of political and military governance: no small task.
"They [IS] are building redundancies into the system," Will McCants, author of ISIS Apocalypse and director of the US Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, told VICE News. "They are giving field commanders and governors much more freedom and leeway, so even if you lose the caliph [Abu Bakr al Baghdadi] you don't necessarily lose the caliphate."
Most observers now agree that defeating IS will be more challenging —and less likely —as the months and (now) years grind on. The longer the group survives against the international coalition that has so visibly formed against them, the more credibility they can build as a movement, and the greater their ability to attract foreign fighters, radical ideologues, and local auxiliaries.
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Nick Heras, an associate fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New America Security, told VICE News, "fundamentally speaking, [IS] has already achieved the first phase of victory, surviving for over a year with an intense multi-national US-led coalition against it. They held on to most of their territorial gains in Iraq and expanded their territory in Syria."
To build on this success, all IS really has to do in order to become fully victorious is just hold on to what they've already done — as an economy that can generate revenue to support its fighters, as a theological movement that can legitimize the caliphate's political ambitions and, most importantly, as a military organization that can continually expand and acquire new territory.
"The second phase is now for ISIS to completely co-opt the Syrian revolutionary movement," said Heras, who explained that the group can only succeed as a religious movement when every other insurgent group has made bay'ah (sworn allegiance) to IS, even those affiliated with al Qaeda such as Jabhat al Nusra.
Given the amount of territory IS currently administers, that's not an utterly insane or completely impossible scenario. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, after the capture of the ancient city of Palmyra in May, IS now controls nearly half of Syria's territory (although far less of its population). Which is not just vital for IS's expansionist ideology; it also suggests that Syria's revolutionary movement might still swing fully in the direction of IS, as in Iraq.
And even though the US-led coalition has a strategy to ultimately "degrade and defeat" IS, it relies on a strategy of airstrikes and military assistance that doesn't address the political catastrophes that IS exploited in the first place — including sectarianism, factionalism, and a lack of representative government. Nor does this strategy align with the regional priorities of the other countries involved in the conflict.
According to an intelligence report given to VICE News by Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk management company based in the UK, the diverging interests in the Middle East among countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Russia and the US has significantly reduced the possibility of uniting together to defeat a group such as IS.
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What this boils down to is the possibility that countries bordering IS territories might eventually give up on the prospect of destroying IS in favor of developing policies of containment instead. Intentionally or not, this would define the borders of the Caliphate and effectively cede the territory in-between to IS.
"There is the possibility that they [IS] become a de facto state and we are going to have to deal with that," Ghaido Heto of i-Strategic, a political risk consulting firm, told VICE News. "The more established states would have to fortify their borders along these tangent lines and it might get to a point where we are dealing and negotiating with ISIS in the future."
Despite IS's many successes, any hypothetical victory would likely have to be rooted in the Islamic foundations that have been used to justify the Caliphate, and that's where IS finds itself on increasingly shakier ground, amid uncertainty about the popularity in the broader Muslim world.
In September 2014, a cadre of international Islamic scholars released the "Letter to Baghdadi," challenging the IS leader's claims to represent the global Muslim community or ummah. The letter notes the audacity of "a group of no more than several thousand appoint[ing] itself the ruler over a billion-and-a half Muslims."
Yasir Qadhi, one of America's leading Islamic scholars and a signatory of the letter, told VICE News that "it is impossible for ISIS to gain popularity and support if it travels down this road of sheer brutality. I do not even see this as a remote possibility."
He went on to say that, "if they [IS] had been more humane, more democratic, more —dare I say —Islamic, and had been truly following the teachings mainstream Muslims embrace, then they would have had a far more resounding success than they currently do."
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For other religious leaders though, the lack of acceptance from the global Muslim community might be the one saving grace for those working towards IS's defeat. Abdelaziz al Sheikh, Saudi Arabia's grand mufti (the country's top religious authority), even went so far as to call IS the "number one enemy of Islam." So rather than attracting the support of Muslims who might be drawn to an Islamic project like the Caliphate, IS's presumption of religious authority coupled with their extreme violence might ultimately undermine its own success and result in a narrow sphere of influence that will never expand beyond the Iraqi and Syrian hinterlands.
"The question of legitimacy has to be answered by those conferring it on to you, and unless a large segment of the Muslim world agrees to follow your thinking, there will never be any real legitimacy [for the Caliphate],"said Dr. Qadhi.
Right now there is no guarantee that IS will be triumphant, nor is there any guarantee that they'll be defeated either. However, the mere survival of IS, reflects a kind of victory, since its very existence continues to defy all expectation.
"You can recognize the political realities that ISIS is far more than a terrorist group, much more than an insurgency, but you don't have to accept its statehood in perpetuity," says McCants. Yet without a coherent plan that can dismantle IS's state-building infrastructure and replace it with workable political solutions, there is little reason to expect that they are going anywhere, at least not anytime soon.
Follow Landon Shroder on Twitter: @LandonShroder