Red Team Options for Syria: The Fall of Raqqa, Syria from an Islamic State Perspective

Vincent Dueñas is a Master of International Public Policy candidate and Strategic Studies concentrator at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a U.S. Army Major.  The views reflected are his own and do not represent the opinion of the United States Government or any of its agencies.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


Source: Institute for the Study of War

National Security Situation:  Fall of Raqqa, Syria.

Date Originally Written:  December 9, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 15, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The article is a red team exercise, written from the point of view of a senior planner in the Islamic State who is tasked with recommending strategy options, assuming that Mosul, Iraq will fall and that Raqqa will be next.

Background:  The ultimate goal is and remains the establishment of a powerful caliphate that can govern and impose Shari’a.  This will be done by reinforcing the legitimacy and authenticity of the Caliphate.  The likely fall of Mosul in Iraq necessitates a reexamination of the core tenets of our current campaign plan in order to ensure the Caliphate’s continued existence in Syria.  We are experiencing significant losses in personnel and manpower in Mosul, Raqqa, and al-Bab, as the enemy fighters push aggressively into our territory [1] (See Map Above).  To date we are estimated to have lost over 15% of our land holdings since 2015[2].  We initially did three things well to establish the Caliphate: 1. Tapped into Sunni Muslim grievances, 2. Established functioning local governance that benefited true faith Sunni Muslims and 3. Launched spectacular terror campaigns against Western targets, using sophisticated media campaigns.

Significance:  We are now at a critical point on the battlefield where we must decide on how best to consolidate and reorganize in order to prevent total annihilation and be able to continue waging jihad and protect the Caliphate.

Option #1:  Maintain a primarily conventional warfare strategy with a widespread harsh punishment strategy against civilians in our controlled territories.

Risk:  The primary risk in Option #1 stems from maintaining a conventional warfare strategy that would lead to a siege of Raqqa and a potentially catastrophic military defeat of our forces.  This would discredit our claim to the Caliphate and potentially risk the life of our leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A secondary risk stemming from the continued use of widespread harsh punishment against the civilian population in our territories is the potential for local populations to turn against the Caliphate and provide information and support to the invading enemy.

A tertiary risk is encouraging the continued support of the great powers, Russia and the U.S., because of their perceived progress.  Currently the great powers are only committed to air power and very few ground forces because their populations only tacitly support military action.

Maintaining our current conventional and punishment strategy almost ensures a direct confrontation against all of our forces, which could potentially overwhelm us.

Gain:  The greatest gain to undertaking Option #1 is that if we were to begin defeating the enemy forces, backed by the great powers, we would fulfill the legitimacy that we initially claimed when we overwhelmed eastern Syria and western Iraq.  Success in conventional warfare would increase the belief in al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate worldwide and a continued widespread harsh punishment strategy would fulfill the implementation of Shari’a without concession.

Option #2:  Transition to an insurgency warfare strategy with a targeted punishment strategy against civilians in our controlled territories.

Risk:  The primary risk in Option #2 stems from the transition to an insurgency, which jeopardizes the legitimacy of al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate by disappearing into the shadows when the stated goal was to spread Shari’a actively.  Our current gains in international messaging and reach could be greatly diminished if it is believed that the Islamic State had been defeated and dissolved.

Gain:  The most obvious gain in Option #2 would be the continued existence of the Islamic State.  Al-Baghdadi and the Caliphate would be preserved and could reorganize to continue the jihad.  The first prerequisite for a successful insurgency is the ability to identify totally with the cause and the population attracted to it[3].  The Islamic State and the Caliphate identify completely with the cause of Shari’a and the entire majority of the population that seeks Sunni Muslim rule, thus stands most poised to overtake groups like al-Qaida and convert all Muslims sects to our path.

The likely fall of Raqqa would still occur, but would not wipe out the majority of our forces as we blend into the populations of cities like Palmyra and the border regions between Abu Kamal, Syria and Al Qu’im, Iraq.  These areas can remain under our firm grip as a weak Syrian government would be unable to extend governance effectively.

Shifting to an insurgency strategy would mean expanded guerrilla tactics against Syrian government forces and rebel forces in order to ensure a disruption of any sense of control, with the possibility of exhausting great power support.  Even more beneficial would be the increased ability for the Islamic State to act subversively to pit Russia against the U.S. through guerrilla attacks masquerading as either Assad forces or anti-Assad forces. An insurgency would sow continued instability throughout the country and prevent any direct confrontational military engagements.

The transition to a targeted punishment strategy would begin to spare Sunni Muslims thus removing a strong distaste that has emerged over our tactics.  Among other Muslims and non-believers, a more judicious use of punishment would encourage compliance and submission to Shari’a and more easily allow us to collect resources through taxes.

An insurgency would also allow us to successfully exploit the historic grievances of our targeted areas.  These Sunni Muslims have witnessed the indiscriminate killing of Sunnis at the hands of Hezbollah and the Assad government who are Shia.  The Islamic State offers the retribution that they seek and through a more judicial hand we can attract broader support.

Other Comments:  An important capability that has not been discussed, but which we have perfected, is our unique capacity to operate on the internet.  Our continued existence can be supported and expanded by using more sophisticated internet-protocol masking software that will allow us to continue publishing propaganda and maintain social media presence to actively recruit foreign fighters and encourage lone wolf attacks.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Gutowski, Alexandra. (2016, December 8). ISIS Sanctuary: December 8, 2016. Retrieved from

[2]  Islamic State and the crisis in Iraq and Syria. (2016, November 2). Retrieved from

[3]  Galula, David. (1964). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. New York: Praeger.


Islamic State Variants Option Papers Red Team Syria Vincent Dueñas Violent Extremism