After months of fighting in the villages and towns on the path to Raqqa an Arab-Kurdish coalition has entered the last major city held by ISIS and its de facto capital. ISIS, by its own definition the ‘Islamic State’, made claim to statehood, one that was vigorously rejected by the vast majority of actual states in the UN and was not recognised by the majority of Muslim leaders. However, the holding of swathes of territory, including cities, the ability to exploit resources such as oil, raise taxes, and continually recruit and raise fighters meant that while ISIS had no recognition or legitimacy as a state it was a proto-state. The loss of Raqqa will be one of a series of losses that have diminished the capacity of ISIS to hold territory and mark the effective end of ISIS as a proto-state.
The group has its origins in the ill-fated Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), who also briefly held the Iraqi city of Fallujah, before being ejected by an alliance of Sunni tribesmen, the Iraqi military, and US forces. When this happened there were none who expected the insurgents to reform and return in the guise of ISIS to occupy swathes of territory, exploiting Sunni disenchantment in Iraq and instability in Syria. As Raqqa shares the fate of Ramadi, Fallujah, Sirte, and Mosul through being decimated in the process of liberation from ISIS the question will be of what happens next.
First, it will be far from over, and the end of ISIS is not in sight. Despite provoking the ire of just about every other actor from within Syria’s charnel house and Iraq’s sectarian divisions the loss of territory means that ISIS will revert to the tactics of insurgency and terrorism through which they took the cities in the first place. This is a continuation of a process which began when the coalition airstrikes began to deny ISIS the ability to operate as a conventional army with massed forces. Freed from the constraints of maintaining cities and defending territory, which requires a visible and strong presence, the group will become more clandestine and work in smaller numbers, with an emphasis on hit and run attacks and suicide bombing. It is very likely that their numbers will decrease, as the harshness of life as an insurgent weeds out the less committed, but the nucleus that remains will be tougher, harder to find, and more self-reliant. There is also the question of ISIS’s continuing internet and human based network in the ‘far abroad’ of Europe, which doesn’t require the existence of a physical Caliphate to promote radicalisation and violence and recruit new volunteers.
It would also be a mistake to think that ISIS can’t return or a new group supplant it in the way that ISIS did Al-Qaeda. Let us not forget the second, whose affiliated groups include a major actor in the Syrian civil war, Jabhat al Nusra, whom preceded ISIS and may well outlast them, if under a different name. ISIS are able to gain allegiance from major groups in countries as far apart as Nigeria and the Philippines, but this amounts to a flag of convenience amplified by ISIS propaganda rather than material support in the form of money, weapons and volunteers. Jihadist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda thrive where there are power vacuums and lack of security, poverty, and lack of representation, as exemplified by failed states such as Somalia. In the Middle-East there are two states suffering from a chronic disorder, surviving not because they can provide security, but because outsiders have supported them and non-government forces have backed up their armies. One is Syria, whose government has had to rely on air support from Russia and the troops of Hezbollah and Iranian militias to survive. The other is Iraq, whose government has had to rely on air support from the US led coalition and Shia militias from Iraq and Iran. In both cases the Kurds helped to stem the ISIS advance of 2014 and begin the fight to take back ISIS territory. In Syria, while the government holds the upper hand (deemed unthinkable in 2012), it is far from winning the war and is fighting an opposition that consists of groups described as ‘Moderate’, ‘Islamist’ and ‘Jihadist’. Peace talks do not include the last of these and while predicting the future course of the Syrian war is difficult, there is little room for compromise between the government and the Jihadists and Islamists. In the cases of both Syria and Iraq, territory is held by competing actors and the state is weak and reliant on non-state actors and outside powers for security. This is a situation more dangerous than before the start of Syria’s war in 2011 and the ISIS advance across Iraq in 2014 as a lack of security means a lack of stability and with it the ability to tackle the socio-economic problems that sow the ground for extremism.
We cannot predict what form the future of Jihadist threat will take or where it will arise, but we can make projections based on what has gone before and the conditions on the ground. Firstly, military defeat in the field does not guarantee that jihadist groups will not reappear in a different guise and with the same results. Secondly, the ideology and the means by which it is disseminated are highly developed and survive even when a group is defeated or crippled. It also has a global reach. Third, jihadist and Islamist groups emerge in strength where there is a security vacuum, weak central governance, and/or poor representation and inequality. The challenge facing Iraq is how to reintegrate a Sunni minority and rebuild its population centres, while tackling the remnants of ISIS outside of the cities. Syria’s challenge is very different, the Assad regime is an international pariah and what it intends to do in the northern Idlib Province is uncertain. ISIS hasn’t been defeated yet, although it is on the back foot, but the conditions for a Jihadist revival are already in place, and there is also potential for cooperation between ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra and other groups. Next week we will look at how the changing threat can be countered.
For more information regarding this blog see:
Dr Carl Turner,