By Kabir Taneja*
On 23 March, the US backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) officially declared the end of the Islamic State’s caliphate, after the terror group’s last territorial hold, the village of Baghouz and its roughly 3 km long boundary, fell to the anti-ISIS armada led by the Kurds.
Despite multiple, previous declarations of victory by US President Donald Trump via tweets, this time the SDF released videos, pictures and held a press conference to declare the end of the ISIS’s geographic hold that it knew as its ‘caliphate’. The SDF statement highlighted the destruction of the “Islamic State Organisation” after five years of battle, one that they fought as it posed a “public challenge over all human beings”. The SDF also highlighted the toll it has absorbed in battling the Islamic State, saying that it had lost 11,000 people with over 21,000 wounded. Despite the US-led coalition, and the anti-ISIS Russian campaign side by side, the Kurds faced most of the brunt on the ground.
The air campaign against the ISIS has been one of the largest operations since the World War II, and lasted three months longer than the duration of the World War I. According to Airwars, a UK based not-for-profit organisation, the air campaign against the ISIS lasted 1,688 days and 33,994 air and artillery strikes were conducted as per the official data between August 2014 and March 2019. More than 116,000 munitions and missiles were fired during the same period, both from fixed-wing aircraft and drones. More than 80% of all these strikes were conducted by the US. This, of course, does not include the engagement numbers of the Russian air force, which was also active on the anti-ISIS operations on its independent merit.
The reign of this proto-state spanned a tectonic 4 years and 8 months after its ‘caliph’, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared its official existence from the now destroyed Al Nuri mosque in Mosul on 29 June, 2014.
The battle of Baghouz was a spectacle in itself, and showcased both the resilience of ISIS fighters and in many cases, their families, highlighting the high levels of ideological indoctrination. Over the past weeks, videos of families of ISIS fighters escaping into the desert around the Deir Ezzor region were circulated, in which the wives of ISIS fighters, with their kids in tow, were seen defiantly calling for the protection of the caliphate and attacking journalists as they shouted pro-ISIS chants towards the cameras. Over this course, it is known that more than 72,000 ISIS family members had surrendered to the SDF and thousands of fighters themselves laid down their arms as it became clear that Baghouz was to fall sooner.
However, the territorial defeat of the Islamic State does not mean the end of the ISIS as a terror group, nor does it mean the end of the civil war in Syria. It is imperative to remember here that the rise of the ISIS was not the reason why the war in Syria began in the first place. Al Qaeda in Iraq saw the opportunity of political vacuums in Syria during the Arab Spring coupled with movement by various dissenting groups against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and decided to build a presence in this void. Over the next many months, Al Qaeda in Iraq morphed into what we today know as the ISIS, and installed itself into the Arab Spring movement against Assad, quickly taking over territory, absorbing thousands of fighters and announcing Raqqa, in northern Syria, as its de-facto capital in 2014. It replaced Syrian flags with the ISIS flags on administration buildings. These images made it to the front pages around the world, raising concerns in the world’s major capitals and giving the ISIS unprecedented publicity and branding.
The defeat of the Islamic State does not translate into the defeat of the ISIS. Nor does it translate into the defeat of other Islamist groups in the Iraq–Syria theatre. The loss of geography, however, was critical. The geography was perhaps the single biggest driving factor of the mainstreaming of pro-ISIS ideology around the world, which inadvertently saw scores of people travel to Syria between 2013 and 2016 to join this proto-state structure that was well marketed online by the group’s sympathisers with slick video productions, magazines, newspapers and so on available freely for consumption. The Islamic State was not just active in its territory as a military outfit but also playing the role of a governing body. It applied a taxation system, Sharia law, maintained sanitation of the cities and towns under its control, provided aid, policing, Islamic courts and so on. Some of these activities gained it support from populations that were either fed-up of government apathy or in cases such as Mosul in Iraq, where Sunni minorities saw (albeit unwisely, as they later found out) ISIS as upholders of their interests against a predominantly and often brutal Shia Iraq.
From here on, the ISIS will continue to live as an insurgency, the first avatar it appeared in during the Arab Spring. Already, sporadic attacks claimed by the ISIS have been reported from various parts of both Iraq and Syria. In an audio message released on 18 March, days before the SDF and the US declared victory, ISIS spokesperson Abu Hassan al-Mujahir, known as a close confidant of Baghdadi and one who does not even have a picture of him available in public, used the Christchurch terror strikes at mosques in New Zealand to try to rejuvenate and raise morale of the ISIS’s supporter base. He built an analogy on persecution of Muslims from Baghouz to Christchurch, in an attempt to rally what would today be a demoralised ISIS support base.
The ‘post-caliphate’ phase of the ISIS is not going to be an easy task to tackle by any means. Estimates continue to suggest that thousands of ISIS personnel still persist, and have only dispersed for now in order to protect themselves. Many caught international ISIS fighters currently lie in limbo with their countries of origin refusing to take them back, which could mean they may be set free eventually. In Iraq, trial courts are conducting formality hearings and sentencing ISIS fighters to death in proceedings that sometimes last mere few minutes. Questions also remain over legal justifications of ISIS fighters or members who joined the group against their wishes to either safeguard themselves or their families. Answers to these remain elusive, as political turmoil still remains as prevalent as ever in Syria, and pockets of uncertainty and sectarian strife continues to stand at a tipping point once again in Iraq.
The Islamic State, in some ways, permanently altered global geo-politics. The group fundamentally re-designed our understanding of counter-terrorism, an already precarious and patchy field of study which attempts to apply a ‘one-solution-for-all-terrorism’ narrative, led largely by the US, the world’s only superpower that is often blamed for not having a vision for its foreign policy ideations beyond a six-month period.
The ISIS brought in unprecedented challenges. Beyond holding a proto-state, it weaponised the internet, used technologies that propagated democratisation of information and communications against people far beyond the caliphate and successfully created presence in places such as the African Sahel, Libya, Philippines and so on in the form of ‘wilayats’, or guardianships, abroad. It created a significant brand, one that anyone from a terror group to an individual in Europe could brandish, and conduct violence in its name, attaining immediate global interest.
The fight against Islamic State may be over for now, but the fight against the ISIS and the ideologies fueling it is a long-drawn war, one that cannot be beaten by mere enforcement of power and military might. The main challenge now is to make sure that no environment is allowed to sustain for an ISIS 2.0 to emerge. The military defeat of the caliphate was the expected and easy part, but much of the work on defeating ISIS is yet to begin. The global community can aid this fight the way it aided the SDF. Any lasting solution will eventually have to come from within the states, people, leaders, tribes and ecosystems of the region itself.