The intervening powers in Syria would do well by reading into the unfolding developments in Iraq that even while the American-supported Iraqi regime could defeat the insurgency on the battlefield by rolling back the influence of pro-Saddam forces and Al Qaeda with the assistance of Sunni groups including anti-Saddam forces, the hydra-headed ISIS sprang up and quickly replaced Al Qaeda when the intervening power fanned Sunni disillusionment by reserving key governmental ministries and posts for the Shia sect.
The ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi pointed to the unprecedented bouncing back capacity of the group when he said that the jihadi group could be able to mobilize more than 60 thousand fighters in Iraq from more than a hundred countries to its cause when a surge in US troops’ operations in 2007 downsized the group to only about a thousand fighters (R. Wright, ISIS Makes a Comeback –as Trump Opts to Stay in Syria”, The New Yorker, August 30, 2018, Available at https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/isis-makes-a-comebackas-trump-opts-to-stay-in-syria).
Although the US-led coalition forces have made an announcement that they are fighting the last phase of war against ISIS in Hajin – a desert terrain along the Euphrates River’s east bank and an area claimed to be the last retreat for the group, some US officials have acknowledged that ISIS is also active in other areas such as in the south of the Euphrates River and near the city of Palmyra – areas under the control of Assad regime and out of an effective-reach of US-led coalition troops.
As per some US intelligence reports-which remained ambivalent as to the strength and number of the group and reports from the UN suggest the group remained resilient in rural pockets and border areas of Iraq and Syria even though the American-led forces may have liquidated the group in urban strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa. A report from a UN panel of experts noted: “ISIS has up to 30,000 members roughly distributed between Syria and Iraq and its global network poses a rising threat.” (Bad News: ISIS Has Just as Many Fighters in Iraq and Syria As It Did 4 years Ago”, The National Interest, August 15, 2018, Available at https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/bad-news-isis-has-just-many-fighters-iraq-and-syria-it-did-4-years-ago-28812).
The reports also came up with a caveat that notwithstanding “ISIS’s battlefield losses, the core will survive with support from countries such as Afghanistan, Libya, Southeast Asia and West Africa” (Ibid).
The factors that contributed to resilience of ISIS in Syria until the US proclaimed the last phase of fighting the group out of Syria that started in May 2018 notwithstanding a multipronged challenge to its survival from American, Russian, Iranian and Turkish forces can be explained by the anarchic socio-economic and political conditions that the US, Russia and Iran contributed to either by supporting the rebel forces as the US has done or by seeking to prevent the Assad regime from falling despite its despotic character as the Russians and Iranians have done.
It is worthwhile to mention that the US was engaged in supporting moderate Islamic groups with arms and aid under the rubric of ‘Arab spring’ to unseat despotic regimes from power. In this context, the Syrian rebel groups not only received official support from the American leadership to fight ISIS in the form of ‘train and equip’ program, the CIA was allegedly involved in covert operations running into billions of American dollars to unseat the Assad regime from power. The Russian military involvement in Syrian war in 2015 rolled back the gains that the rebel groups achieved and the Assad regime is now poised to acquire the territories lost to the rebels. However, going by the Iraqi example, there is high probability that the anger and disillusionment of the rebels would find a way out by channelizing these negative feelings and energies towards support for ISIS.
Fluidity of ISIS insurgency
While the geopolitical gambits between the US-led coalitions on the one hand and the Russians and Iranians on the other are very much on in Syria with Idlib serving as the bastion for their competition, the question that assumes significance is how far the fight against ISIS in Syria would go in destroying the roots and vitality of this group.
The American drive against terror groups has so far engendered mixed results as liquidation of one group has given birth to another group as in the case of Al Qaeda’s liquidation leading to the rise of ISIS. The members regroup and emerge from another location with a new avatar or the members of the groups after defecting from one group get recruited by another group, learn from each others’ modus operandi, share arms and ammunitions and raise their funds from coordinated illegal drugs and arms trade. It is germane to note that the foothold of ISIS has already expanded to other adjacent regions where the state institutions remain weak and fragile. Similarly, even while the Assad regime supported by Russia and Iran seems poised to retake lost territories by defeating rebels but that is not likely to end insurgency.
Faced with serious fights in Iraq and Syria, ISIS looked for other countries ridden with sectarian conflicts and grievances against intervening power and Afghanistan appeared being most suitable on these counts. ISIS spread into the law-less areas of Afghanistan reportedly following the death of Mullah Omar – the leader of and stabilizing force within the Taliban. Even since the group has been able to strengthen its presence in Af-Pak border areas and spread its presence and influence into other areas with passage of time.
While several news reports maintained that the ranks of ISIS continued to bloat with foreign fighters escaping from Syria, Iraq and members from Central Asian countries, the US-led forces quite in tune with their success stories against the group in Iraq and Syria have underplayed the threat posed by ISIS by maintaining that the influence of ISIS in Afghanistan was limited to a few provinces such as Nangarhar and Kunar in the east and Jowzjan in north of Afghanistan and that the group consisted of only local defectors numbering around 1500 from other militant groups. (“US Military Rejects Russian Claims About Number of IS Fighters in Afghanistan”, VOA News, February 24, 2018, Available at https://www.voanews.com/a/us-military-rejects-russia-numbers-of-islamic-state-fighters-in-afghanistan/4268999.html).
Russia based on its intelligence information has expressed its concerns that ISIS has an enhanced presence of ISIS in Afghanistan with around 10,000 fighters spread across eight to nine provinces including its influence in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan along the Pakistani border and in the northern province of Jowzjan which shares a border with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan carrying a dangerous portent for the Central Asian states. China, Pakistan and Iran share Russian heightened threat perceptions from ISIS in Afghanistan (“Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia Agree to Carry out Joint Efforts against ISIS”, The Nation, July 13, 2018, Available at https://nation.com.pk/13-Jul-2018/pakistan-iran-china-russia-agree-to-carry-out-joint-efforts-against-isis).
Beijing seems to be alarmed at the possibility that ISIS in Afghanistan might be able to recruit many Uighurs from its restive Xinjiang province as around 5000 ethnic Uighurs belonging to the Muslim minority community reportedly joined ISIS call for jihad in Syria. (B. Blanchard, “Syria says up to 5,000 Chinese Uighurs fighting in militant groups”, Reuters, May 11, 2017, Available at https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-china/syria-says-up-to-5000-chinese-uighurs-fighting-in-militant-groups-idUSKBN1840UP).
Despite American-led forces’ attempts at downplaying ISIS threat in Afghanistan, the group has claimed responsibility for most of the despicable and horrendous terrorist attacks apart from more frequent but less highlighted attacks on the Afghan soil. For instance, there were successive terror attacks in Kabul on April 30, 2018 which reportedly took lives of more than forty civilians including journalists and children. (“Pompeo condemns terror bombings in Afghanistan”, May 1, 2018, Available at https://www.yahoo.com/news/latest-least-4-killed-kabul-blasts-042124456.html).
These strikes followed closely on the heels of a spate of serious attacks a week before in which more than sixty civilians were killed while they lined up to register to vote for the upcoming elections (Afghanistan: 63 dead in Attacks on voter registration centres”, Aljazeera news, April 22, 2018, Available at https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/04/afghanistan-deaths-attack-id-voter-registration-centre-kabul-180422063114761.html). Terrorist offensives by the group in the Afghan city of Jalalabad killed 19 people including 17 persons from Sikh and Hindu communities on July 1, 2018 (Afghan Sikhs, Hindus grieve after suicide attack kills 19”, The Tribune, July 2, 2018, Available at https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/world/afghan-sikhs-hindus-grieve-after-suicide-attack-kills-19/613933.html).
Attacks on August 15, 2018 claimed lives of more than forty eight young people among which 34 were students belonging to the Shiite minority sect who were preparing for university entrance exams (“Suicide bomber kills 48 in Kabul as students prepare for University exams”, Independent, 15 August 2018, Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/kabul-suicide-bomb-students-death-toll-latest-shiite-isis-dead-a8493526.html).
However, the attacks perpetrated by the group made concerted efforts at spreading anarchy by undermining the nascent democratic and peace process in Afghanistan with targeting potential voters and religious minorities. The car bomb attack on a gathering of the Taliban and Afghan forces united to celebrate Eid ceasefire between June 15 and 17 which claimed at least 26 lives and left several others wounded in the eastern province of Nangarhar could have no other objective except sabotaging the peace process and spread lawlessness in Afghanistan which could only provide the group with the ability to spread its radical ideology and recruit emotionally-tormented people (R. Jain, Q. Sediqi, “Afghanistan Eid car bomb, claimed by Islamic State, kills 26”, Reuters, June 16, Available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-taliban/afghanistan-eid-car-bomb-claimed-by-islamic-state-kills-26-idUSKBN1JC044).
The US-led forces displayed tremendous resoluteness in unseating despotic regimes like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam of Iraq and in the similar fashion, the Iranian and Russian forces exhibited remarkable consistency in bolstering the Assad regime but what they are seemingly unable to provide is stable alternatives which would bring stability in these societies deeply divided along sectarian lines.
As the war and peace efforts have not been able to deliver on stability in Afghanistan and the Trump Administration has indicated that the US may not be interested in post-conflict state-building efforts in Syria, pertinent questions still remain as regards the American and other powers’ will and capacity to address the problem of terrorism in real terms. Intervening powers in order to take on terrorism to its last must work towards providing for a stable state with normal socio-economic functions in Afghanistan as well as Syria.