What Does the Future Hold?
* Everything else will be a mop up operation in terms of denying them control of territory. The claim of the caliphate at that point is shattered
* With almost no prospect for reclaiming control over territory, ISIS is bound to undergo internal restructuring
* without addressing the social and political questions that have given rise to ISIS, as a terrorist organisation, ISIS will be with us for many years
By Joud Halawani Al-Tamimi
Almost three years after it declared the advent of its caliphate, ISIS is finally suffering defeat. Their control over land has been significantly eroded over the past year, and now they are being forced out of their two main strongholds: the Iraqi city of Mosul and Syrian city of Raqqa. It is their ability to control these two cities since 2014 that had up until the past few months consolidated their claim to a modern-day caliphate. But optimism over ISIS’s loss of land should be accompanied by caution, for territorial defeat will not necessarily spell the end of the terrorist organization which has managed to transform the map of the Middle East since 2014.
“They’re done territorially,” Dr. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told ThinkProgress. “Everything else will be a mop up operation in terms of denying them control of territory. The claim of the caliphate at that point is shattered.”
Still, driving ISIS out of Iraqi and Syrian cities they previously controlled does not equate to combatting violence, let alone establishing peace. ISIS may continue to operate in Iraq, Syria and beyond as an insurgent group.
The Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point released a new repost that stressed the necessity of “post-liberation security, governance and politics,” while highlighting the hundreds of attacks carried out by ISIS in cities that they were purportedly expelled from. The report accordingly warned from the endurance of militant cells in so-called “liberated” areas of Iraq and Syria.
The report's authors, Daniel Milton and Muhammad al-Ubaydi wrote," Simply pushing ISIS out of a formal governing position in Iraq and Syria, while an important first step, will not ensure the achievement of these post-liberation tasks and reduce the likelihood that ISIS or some other terrorist organization emerges to take advantage of a tenuous peace."
There is also the possibility that ISIS could relocate to another region. Following continuous losses in Iraqi cities over the past year, many ISIS Jihadists started flocking to Libya instead, where the terrorist organization’s influence quickly expanded in the context of Libya’s political vacuum. However, in light of an ongoing offensive, the jihadists’ presence in Libya is waning.
Still, ISIS has militant cells in countries like Somalia, Afghanistan and most recently the Philippines, all of which are currently experiencing or will experience the consequences of ISIS insurgency.
However, it is unlikely that these counties will become ISIS strongholds. The context was very different in countries that suffered this fate. Civil war was raging in both Syria and Libya prior to ISIS’s rise in the two countries.
With almost no prospect for reclaiming control over territory, ISIS is bound to undergo internal restructuring. We are likely to witness the emergence of a less centralized model.
“There will be a changing model” Gartenstein-Ross asserted. I think we’ll see a hybrid model emerge that carries out decentralized attacks and at the same time focuses on territory.”
This is confirmed by Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy:
“If ISIS loses Mosul, the group has a clearly articulated contingency plan, a strategy it has frequently broadcast on multiple platforms for the past five months: inhiyaz, or temporary retreat, into the desert,” Hassan stated.
The word “inhiyaz” was uttered in May last year as part of a speech given by Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani, ISIS’s spokesman, Mr.Adnani, who subsequently died in August in an American airstrike. Mr.Adnani asserted at the time that loss of territory does not equate to defeat and that ISIS jihadists would continue the fight and then retreat to the desert where they would get ready for a comeback as they have done before in 2007 and 2013.
Indeed what had happened previously is that the desert became a base for foreign fighters. Their retreat to rural areas enabled jihadis to raise funds through robbery and extortion. Attacks ensued on tribal adversaries and Iraqi security forces, preparing the circumstances for their return six years later.
ISIS’s territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria will most certainly be celebrated by populations across the Middle East. However, the conditions that allowed for their return before have to be dealt with if the region aspires for peace after bloody battles in Raqqa and Mosul.
“The war against ISIS is unwinnable without filling the political and security vacuum that now exists in too much of Iraq,” Hassan wrote. “ISIS’s eventual retreat from Mosul will be a much-needed victory for the country. But unless the government in Baghdad enables Iraqi Sunnis to fill that void, it will once again emerge from the desert.”
Similarly, Fawaz Gerges, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and expert on ISIS, contends that the root causes of ISIS’ rise, if not addressed sufficiently, will continue to fuel ISIS’ dogmatic foundation despite the destruction of its physical presence: “ISIS is a product of broken politics in Iraq and Syria, is a product of creeping sectarianism, the fragility of institutions, the lack of transparent government, the lack of a national unity government. […] [That’s why ISIS] finds a social base of support. Even if ISIS is dismantled as a state, without addressing the social and political questions that have given rise to ISIS, as a terrorist organisation, ISIS will be with us for many years.”