ISIS in the core ‘Islamic State’ appears to be in a state of terminal decline. Iraqi forces are poised to take the remaining part of Mosul after months of battle, an Arab-Kurdish coalition has entered Raqqa, and in southern Syria, the Syrian Arab Army and its allies have reached the border with Iraq, closing an important ISIS route as they did so. Years of being pummeled from the air by coalition airpower, and latterly Russian air attacks, have brought about the circumstance where ISIS enters the endgame as a proto-state. The cost to infrastructure and civilians has been immense, both from ISIS invasion and rule and the campaigns to defeat them. The battles are not over, nor the ‘war’ won, but the end is in sight.
To be sure, nothing should be taken for granted, the victory is not yet here, and the nature and viability of ISIS in its soon to be former heartland is in the hands of a multitude of actors whose differences have the potential to throw victory away. This is a concern in terms of the future security of people in both Iraq and Syria and in terms of the gross trauma that has been inflicted on them. The former is critical in allowing them to recover and rebuild and the latter an unnecessary human-inflicted tragedy.
In an earlier blog it was argued that ISIS would revert to the tactics of terrorism and insurgency that drove their forces forward in 2014 and that the weakness of Iraq and Syria as cohesive states provided the conditions for a revival of ISIS or the emergence of a similar group in the future. These are a concern as the lack of a territory and military defeat does not make ISIS a lost cause as its ideology incorporates an apocalyptic worldview, which conveniently works during either military victory or defeat. The ideology remains as a seed to be sowed in all weathers and climes and these take root where there is an absence of security and/or the state is weak, much in the way that the crushing of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has not prevented its re-emergence since. The jihadist ideology thrives in conflict zones.
This brings us to where it can go wrong in a regional environment with multiple actors and interests whose aims and goals are incompatible. There was no alliance between these regarding ISIS, more a convergence of interests that meant they fought ISIS separately at the same time. The battles for the future of Syria are not simply a matter of the people of Syria deciding who rules Syria but more a matter of the interests of competing regional powers within a battle zone that they have transformed into a sectarian battleground. They have been assisted in this by the US led coalition and Russia, who clearly support, respectively, the moderate opposition and the Government. Al-Qaeda linked groups remain, who have proved to be very effective in their battles and still hold territory. How they will fare depends on what the other actors do, and thus far, they have made their own interests a priority over the ending of Syria’s war. Every regional and international power, including the US, France, UK, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, has sought to mediate an end to the war, but with their own terms in mind, while most continue to be active militarily. With no end in sight to this and the lack of security and stability that comes with it, Syria remains vulnerable to a Jihadist revival and at the very least will host jihadist terror groups’, the question is under what banner.
The other problem is that preventing the re-emergence of ISIS, or a successor group, is not simply dependent on military solutions, but the prickly question of representation in society and politics. This was at the heart of the uprising in Syria in 2011 and has proved to be a major problem in post-invasion Iraq, whose security relies on a hodgepodge of the Iraqi security forces, Shia and Sunni militias (Iraqi and Iranian), tribal groups, and Kurdish peshmerga. The war against ISIS is unfinished and Iraq is a divided state along sectarian lines with clear Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish areas. The Shia’s and the Kurd’s have been critical to retaking the predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq from ISIS and are welcome liberators, but the provision of long term security and stability is another matter, and needs to fall to either the Iraqi army or Sunni defence forces, lest liberators come to be seen as occupiers. The question for Iraq is the reintegration of Sunni’s into the social and political sphere in manner where they see their interests as being fairly represented. This is a massive task, while Shia Iran maintains an influence and the Shia are in the majority and the Kurd’s are considering independence, a prospect that will alarm Turkey the most. Yet it must be done, less the Jihadist groups infiltrate again and do their damage even as the villages, towns, and cities of western and northern Iraq are being rebuilt. Winning military battles is one thing, rebuilding a country and dealing with the human cost and damage to infrastructure is another. This is where the resources of the international community will prove invaluable.
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Dr Carl Turner,