Stabilizing The Fertile Crescent After The Fall Of The Caliphate – Analysis


By Tally Helfont and Samuel Helfont*

(FPRI) — In October 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq consolidated its alliances and declared itself a state—the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).  Despite the fact that ISI created ministries and other trappings of a state, it never controlled territory in a manner that states do.  As such, the world mostly ignored its claim of statehood.  In 2011, as American forces withdrew from Iraq and as Syria descended into civil war, the Islamic State of Iraq gradually took control of territory in both of those countries.  In April 2013, ISI changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to convey the fact that it held territory on both sides of the border.  Still, the world mostly ignored its existence.  By June 2014, such willful ignorance could no longer be maintained in the wake of the blitzkrieg offensive that ISIS blazed across northern Iraq.  With the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second most important city, and the ensuing collapse of the Iraqi military, the United States finally was forced to take notice and abandon its plans for withdrawal.  However, by the time American forces began to reengage, ISIS ruled vast sections of Iraq and Syria in the manner typical of a territorial state.  It collected taxes, ran schools, collected garbage, and maintained the all-important monopoly on the use of force.  ISIS’s statehood created a situation which was new for counter-terrorism strategists, and the military operations against ISIS often resembled conventional state-on-state warfare—with front lines, battles for cities, and the massing of troops—rather than traditional counter-terrorism operations.

When the United States began those operations in 2014, its stated intention was to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.  Since then, a diverse array of forces has worked tirelessly to liberate key territories in Iraq and Syria from ISIS’s Caliphate.  Now, in the summer of 2018, ISIS’s Caliphate has largely been dismantled as a territorial entity.  However, the group is far from destroyed, and its ability to maneuver is much improved as it reverts to an insurgency.  What’s more, there is very little to prevent yet another non-state armed group from retaking the very same lands that ISIS once held.  Accordingly, American diplomacy, military strategy, and intelligence collection likely will focus on Iraq and Syria for many years to come.  Thus, the question for policymakers is how the U.S. can prevent non-state armed groups from regaining a territorial foothold, further destabilizing these territories, and ultimately threatening U.S. interests in the region.  Relatedly, the question of what to do about the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS even if they do not hold territory remains equally pressing.

A post-territorial counter-terrorism strategy that provides post-conflict stabilization and impairs jihadis from operating in this theater is needed.  This strategy will have to blend kinetic, cyber, political, and economic toolsets on the local, regional, and international levels.  It also will need to reassess the jihadi threat emanating from the Fertile Crescent.  This Summer 2018 special issue of Orbis, “Stabilizing the Fertile Crescent after the Fall of the Caliphate,” is designed both to provide a framework for thinking about the threat of terrorism emanating from the Fertile Crescent now that ISIS’s Caliphate is being undone and to provide concrete policy recommendations to establish a tenable politico-economic status quo.  As such, it brings together a mix of practitioners and academics to examine a wide range of topics at the local, state, transnational, and international levels.

The first article by Colin P. Clarke and Assaf Moghadam diagnoses the current state of the global jihad movement and offers reflections on its likely trajectory.  Clarke and Moghadam argue that while the global jihad has suffered a temporary setback due to the decline of the Islamic State, the movement still benefits from al-Qaeda’s regeneration; its ongoing ideological appeal; and its structural decentralization.  By transforming into an increasingly multipolar entity, the global jihad movement poses several challenges for counterterrorism in the future, including dealing with a complex movement structure, radicalization, socio-political disenfranchisement, the counter-response of societies targeted by jihadist violence, and technological challenges.

Relatedly, Mia Bloom and Chelsea L. Daymon’s article looks at ISIS’s retreat to a virtual Caliphate as a result of its loss of territory.  For Bloom and Daymon, despite ISIS’s territorial setbacks, its virtual Caliphate shows no signs of diminishment.  With social media platforms being increasingly policed, the messaging application Telegram remains ISIS’s key platform for disseminating propaganda and recruiting new members.  Bloom and Daymon are able to show how ISIS utilizes Telegram to manipulate an environment rich with addictive properties, creating online spaces that encourage group identity, shared opinions, and dominant ideologies, while exploiting an individual’s need to be a part of the group.  Their assessment of the caliber of threat ISIS’s use of Telegram poses for the future should inform policymakers’ strategies toward the cyber-sphere.

In the two articles that follow, Frank Gunter and Samuel Helfont focus on Iraq, why it fell, its current predicament, and what needs to be done to achieve stability.  In Gunter’s estimation, Iraq still faces the same economic challenges that contributed to the rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS.  He posits that unless these challenges are resolved, the likelihood of future political stability in this pivotal country is low.  Extremely high levels of unemployment and underemployment among Iraq’s youth, combined with massive corruption, are contributing to widespread poverty and radicalization.  In order to mitigate these debilitating challenges, Iraq needs to execute successful anti-corruption and pro-youth employment strategies that draw on the experience of other states, but are crafted to meet Iraq’s unique conditions.  For Samuel Helfont, sectarianism, promoted by Iran and various Sunni and Shi‘i Islamists since 2003, was one of the most important sources of instability and malcontent out of which ISIS emerged.  With the bulk of the Caliphate being liberated, Helfont emphasizes that need to consolidate military victories by transforming them into real political gains.  Amid a sea of competing theories on what can keep Iraq from disintegrating, Helfont points to a reemerging Iraqi Arab nationalism as offering a real chance for Iraqis to combat sectarian politics.

Next, Benedetta Berti tackles the devastating legacies of the Syrian Civil War by looking at the “day after” landscape and demonstrating that restoring a measure of stability in this war-torn country will be both a monumental as well as a generational challenge.  Berti maps out the main obstacles that a future post-conflict recovery, reconstruction, and reconciliation process would need to address in order to attain some level of stability and sustainability.  In particular, Berti highlights the need to reign in the proliferation of non-state armed groups and to ensure a process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of former combatants, including those hailing from the jihadi camp.

The next two articles, written by Brandon Friedman and Tally Helfont, look at the involvement of external actors in this fraught region.  Friedman’s article on the role of Iran starts out with the premise that the wars in Iraq and Syria are far from over.  Therefore, countering Iran’s influence in these two countries, according to Friedman, is a long-term project.  Creating viable alternatives to Iranian influence in Damascus and Baghdad is critical to prevent these capitals and their political constituents from becoming long-term Iranian dependencies.  Toward that end, Friedman demonstrates why the United States should work with its partners to secure and stabilize eastern Syria and western Iraq.  Tally Helfont examines the increasingly forward role of the Gulf States.  By exploring the motivations, capabilities, and activities of the Gulf States vis-à-vis ISIS, the Fertile Crescent, and the larger threat that groups like ISIS represent more broadly, Helfont provides U.S. policymakers with a better understanding of this imperiled locality, who is operating within it, and how to adapt American strategy accordingly.

Building on the idea of calibrating American strategy, Nada Bakos posits that ISIS will not be defeated through kinetic operations alone.  Terrorism carried out by groups like ISIS, Bakos argues, is not an existential threat to the U.S.  Containing terrorism and degrading terrorist organizations require a multi-layered approach that is not linear and should encompass locally derived goals.  Thus, Bakos suggests the U.S. government should envision kinetic operations as only one part of a broader strategy to stabilize Iraq and Syria after the collapse of ISIS.

The issue’s final article by Dominic Tierney examines Washington’s strategic calculus with regard to the future of the Fertile Crescent.  Tierney cautions against prioritizing the military destruction of ISIS over creating a tolerable political order.  Rather, he advocates pursuing a long-term strategic approach that aligns the ends and means of war, seeks “ugly stability” rather than illusory goals, accepts that nation building in some form is inevitable, and wins the narrative war.  Moreover, acknowledging that Washington is confronted with endless labor, but is limited in capability and resources is central to creating a viable post-Caliphate strategy.

While all the articles in this issue can stand on their own, they are meant to be read together as part of a holistic approach to the problems that the U.S. faces in the Fertile Crescent.  The subject of each article was chosen to address a key strategic challenge.  The authors then met at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in the early spring of 2018 to flesh out each topic and to determine how they each related to the larger picture.  The nine individual articles, and the issue as a whole, ultimately benefitted from the collaborative dialogue that took place at that meeting.

Several key developments have occurred in the region since these articles were submitted.  The U.S. backed out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran Nuclear deal; the tension between Iran and Israel has boiled over into (fairly one-sided) exchanges of missile and airstrikes in Syria; and an election in Iraq has given increasing strength to Shi‘i militias.  We take it as a point of pride that these developments do not at all decrease the relevance of the articles in this issue.  In fact, just the opposite is true; many of the concerns that these new developments raise were anticipated by the assembled authors.  They discuss topics such as the role of Iran in the region and give suggestions for how to engage with people like Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq (who at the time of this writing appears to have won the most votes in the Iraqi election).  In fact, the policy recommendations offered by the team of authors in this special issue of Orbis are particularly relevant and poignant in light of these recent developments.  As such, it is our hope that they will help to inform policymakers as well as stimulate broader discussions about what comes next in Iraq and Syria.

The above E-Note is the Editor’s Corner in the Summer 2018 edition of Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs.

*About the authors:
Tally Helfont
is the Director of FPRI’s Program on the Middle East. Her current research focuses on regional balance of power, the Levant and the Gulf States, and U.S. policy therein.

Samuel Helfont is a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, and an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the Naval War College’s program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA.


This article was published by FPRI.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *