The Islamic State after the Islamic State

The war against IS will not be won militarily. The world has only has to look at the American military’s “surge” in Iraq of 2006-2007 when al-Qa’ida was said to be defeated, to see a looming parallel with this current situation. History provides a platform to change the narrative. Military action on its own is stopgap measure, while leaving wider structural, socio-economic, and political issues largely unresolved.

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By Christian Kurzydlowski

US President Donald Trump’s sharing of a video via social media from December 19th, 2018, would have us believe that the Islamic State (hereafter referred to as IS) is a defeated entity. Holdouts in Baghouz, a town in eastern Syria, and the last remnant of IS’s caliphate (defined as an Islamic state ruled by the successor to the Prophet Muhammad) spanning Iraq and Syria, evidently haven’t gotten the message.  Neither it seems, has Trump.

The probability of IS losing its last stronghold is high. Yet this defeat will not result in the military destruction of IS. It will not result in IS’s diminished ideological, and intellectual capacity to attract adherents. The capacity of IS to strike militarily will remain potent, and given its level of adaptability, returning to its guerrilla roots, striking infrastructure and supply chains. Military personnel and civilians would also continue to be targets, through continued use of ambushes and suicide attacks. Due to the fear IS instils, it will be able to melt into the local population to escape detection.

The goal of IS thinking is a major transformation of the current global political order. This apocalyptic thinking, bordering on nihilism, has been both radicalized and galvanized as a result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At its core, there is the belief that the ephemeral Muslim community, the Ummah, is being attacked and humiliated. Only when “western” nations and ideas are thrown out of Muslim lands, the state of Israel is destroyed, and those Muslim rulers deemed apostates are deposed, will the caliphate be fully restored.

On a wider global level, IS’s territorial losses can lead to a potential vacuum, waiting to be filled by regional and international actors, such as the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and in more local contexts, both Iraq and Syria, looking to consolidate territory within their borders.

In the Syrian context, the fall of Baghouz has the potential to further exacerbate existing internal cleavages. The Syrian Democratic Forces (hereafter the SDF), a US backed coalition of Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian groups, have Baghouz encircled. Their potential proclaiming of Baghouz as part of its Kurdish led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, can add further tension to the military and political situation. This scenario has a high probability of increasing the likelihood of further conflict with Syrian regime forces, especially with the announced American troop withdrawal, even though no specific timetable has, as of yet, been set.

In contrast to its trajectory in Syria, IS’s rise in Iraq, where it was theorized, and initially structurally organized, the context of its rise is more directly related to external factors. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the main originating catalyst for the formation of what would later morph into the IS, spearheaded by al-Qa’ida, and an umbrella group called Mujahideen Shura Council (made up of six Sunni led insurgent groups). IS in Iraq, was a brainchild of former al-Qa’ida operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi turned a popular insurgency against American troops into a broader Sunni-Shia civil war. This signalized a shift in the dynamic of fault lines in the Middle East with Sunni-Shia polarization in Iraq resulting in the structural rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and minimizing the Israeli-Palestinian fault line.

Regardless, the military defeat of IS, defined by no territorial holdings, will not result in a compounding, nor a change in the geopolitical climate of the region as long the underlying economic, and political issues, such as corruption, economic inequality, and repression, are not resolved. In this context, IS is like an infectious disease, with its message and ideology as the carrier. Any true solution will have change the social structure, and is likely to be multifaceted in its approach and realization.

An obvious requirement to any substantive solution is peace. Peace will significantly stem the tide of recruits to IS, making recruitment more challenging. Peace will also, to a degree, stem the current mass migration from Syria, which is having a destabilizing effect on certain countries within the European Union.

However, peace alone is not sufficient to defeat IS. In the Syrian case, discontent with the regime, and regime repression meted out to dissidents inspired by the Arab Spring, acted as the main catalyst for revolt. IS benefitted from manifest failures of the Arab Spring, among them the endurance of bad governance, and the marginalization and repression of groups deemed “Islamic”. What this means is that the conflict is first and foremost internal, between Muslims, and the key is political. As both Syria and Iraq lack any real sense of, good governance, order, and citizenship, radical ideologies will continue to proliferate due to institutional and governance gaps.

Giving citizens of Iraq and Syria a re-defined sense of citizenship and empowerment, while building infrastructure toward education, employment, social mobility, and transparency, will go a long way to de-escalating radical ideologies. Criminalizing radical ideas (i.e., sympathy for IS), as well as an overtly military response will prove counter-productive. A concerted approach, one that would promote the inclusion of Sunni citizens into state structures is essential. Not just for giving Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis a stake and voice in society, but also to deprive IS of potential adherents.

A programme similar to the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Programme (RDRP), which provides social support services, labour market programs, and vocational training, provides a good starting point. To be fully successful, the inclusion programme must be tailored to the local contexts. Among them are tribal allegiance, local cultural specificities, and importance of Islamic in the public sphere.

The war against IS will not be won militarily. The world has only has to look at the American military’s “surge” in Iraq of 2006-2007 when al-Qa’ida was said to be defeated, to see a looming parallel with this current situation. History provides a platform to change the narrative. Military action on its own is stopgap measure, while leaving wider structural, socio-economic, and political issues largely unresolved.

Christian Kurzydlowski has a PhD in history from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Having previously done a Masters of Arts at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. He is passionate about interpreting current affairs through historical knowledge, to create scenarios for potential future trends. After a decade of globetrotting, he is back in his hometown of Toronto, Canada.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


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