Last week, the Kurd militias supported by the United States, who were fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced that the fall of the Caliphate, that the latter had established in 2014. The militias recaptured the last piece of land that the ISIS was holding in Syria.
So what next? Does the destruction of the Caliphate also mark the end of the ISIS in Syria and Iraq? Will Syria and Iraq return to a pre-Caliphate period? Alternatively, would it be like in Afghanistan where the Taliban abandoned its political hold, but became a deadly militant group, posing a more significant challenge for reconstruction? What would the ISIS game plan now?
The Caliphate (2014-2019)
The Caliphate was established by the ISIS in 2014. The founder of ISIS and the Caliphate - Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi national before creating the ISIS was leading al Qaeda in Iraq. Sometime during 2012-13, al Baghdadi decided to create an independent force outside al Qaeda. The ISIS also referred to as the ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) was born in 2013 from the erstwhile al Qaeda in Iraq.
The situation in Iraq and Syria, where al Baghdadi ultimately established the Caliphate in 2014 at that time was conducive – politically and militarily. 2014 was a spectacular year for the ISIS. It overthrew the Iraqi government troops; following the capture of Fallujah and Ramadi, it took over Mosul in June.
Towns after towns fell like a pack of cards to its onslaught, ultimately leading towards the establishment of the Caliphate.
A tremendous development took place during that period. Youths from different parts of the world got attracted by the ISIS ideology and flocked to Syria via different routes, primarily Turkey. Later referred to as the “Foreign Fighters”, their inflow strengthened the ISIS inside and also allowed to gain some “legitimacy” outside.
An equally important development took place outside Syria and Iraq. Groups that were affiliated earlier to al Qaeda, or fighting independently in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa region – from Egypt to Afghanistan, announced their affiliation to the Caliphate and proclaimed al Baghdadi as their Caliph. From Boko Haram in Africa to the ISIS in Afghanistan – numerous groups owed their allegiance to the Caliphate. In turn, these groups copied the brutal methods of the ISIS in their regions, creating terror amongst people, but also gaining hardcore jihadis with a particular ideology. The ISIS was so brutal in its adherence to the Salafi ideology, many other militant groups that were allied with al Qaeda distance from the former.
The fall of ISIS and the final destruction of the Caliphate in March 2019 was also equally spectacular. After being spectators to the onward march of the ISIS and the establishment of Caliphate, the international community responded with political and military support. Extra-regional and regional powers from US, Russia and Saudi Arabia – despite their differences on other political issues, came together to counter the ISIS.
Military support poured to the militias of the region, especially the Kurds. The airpower provided by the international forces, especially the US, gave a new fillip to the anti-ISIS resistance in Syria and Iraq. The US used its air power; especially, the drone attacks helped the ground forces to reclaim the territory. Since 2015, towns after towns witnessed the ISIS vacating, thanks to the coordinated attack from air and also by the militias that were fully equipped.
Since 2015, there have been a series of reverses, ultimately leading to the demise of the Caliphate in March 2019. Following the victories in Tikrit, Sinjar, Ramadi and Fallujah during 2015-16 in Iraq, the ISIS had to move into Syria. During the last two years, there have been further battles in Syria led by the ground forces supported by the US air support. The loss of Raqqa in October 2017 should have been the death knell for the ISIS. Since then, the final elimination in March 2019 was only a process and a question of when.
So, is the ISIS defeated?
The Caliphate established by the ISIS has been destroyed. However, is the ISIS stand defeated today?
One could see a pattern between the Taliban and the ISIS – in terms of both rise and fall. The Taliban during the late 1990s led an onslaught against a divided nation, used brutal methods to destroy the opposition and made use of the ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan. One could see a similar pattern in the rise of the ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The ISIS used the divided nations in Syria and Iraq and the ungoverned spaces to its advantage. Where there was opposition, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the ISIS fought hard in Syria and Iraq.
Once it captured the territory, like the Taliban, the ISIS used its version of Islam to brutalise the local society. If the military tactics pushed the opponents away, the Taliban and the ISIS used their governance to bring down the society to its knees. The ISIS indulged in mass killings, enslaved the women and brutally assaulted them, and stole their children.
One could see a similar trend in the fall of ISIS when compared with the Taliban. Like the Taliban, the ISIS troops also abandoned towns after towns.
Now, the primary question is: will the ISIS use guerilla tactics, as the Taliban have been since it was overthrown from Kabul?
Many who have been following the rise and fall ISIS believe, that though the international forces and ground forces have pulled down the Caliphate as a political entity, the ISIS has not been eliminated as a group.
Much would depend on how the Syrian democratic forces, primarily led by the Kurds would hold and rebuild. Much would also depend on how much international interest and military support remains to ensure that the ISIS don’t get the upper hand again in those areas, that have been cleared.
On the above question, one could conclude, the Caliphate as a political idea is dismantled. However, the ISIS as a militant group has not been destroyed.
Post-March 2019: What would the ISIS gameplan?
If the ISIS is not destroyed, how will it respond – within Syria and Iraq and outside it?
The biggest challenge for those areas that have been cleared so far from the Caliphate, is to hold it now. It is always easier to clear; holding the same is always a difficult task. Building further will be a bigger challenge. One could see the yellow flags of the Syrian Democratic Forces replacing the black flags of the ISIS. But, will the yellow flags fly high?
Reconstructing the lives and economy is not likely to be an easy task. If the ISIS has destroyed the economic structures, the Syrian Democratic Forces also fought hard to take the towns and its buildings from the ISIS. In the process, the infrastructure that would sustain any economy has taken a severe beating. How to build the lives after pulling down the Caliphate?
The ISIS could pose a tough challenge to hold and build further.
Outside Syria and Iraq, will the ISIS find new areas? Will it shift the Caliphate from Syria and Iraq to other parts of the Middle East and North Africa? One should not discount the possibility of the emergence of the Caliphate elsewhere.
Third, a section has also been talking about a Virtual Caliphate. The ISIS and its supporters have exploited social media to gain support from far-flung regions. For example, South and Southeast Asia, which have been politically and religiously, the two regions are far from developments in the Middle East. However, today, one could see the impact of black flags in these two regions.
The ISIS may continue to exploit social media to recruit people elsewhere.
Finally, it could make use of the regional franchises, which have owed allegiance to the ISIS. From Boko Haram to Afghanistan, as has been explained above, many groups have
Post Caliphate: What would the Foreign Fighters do?
Finally, what will the foreign fighters, those who have been fighting along with the ISIS do? Now there is no more Caliphate, will they return to their native countries?
During 2014-15, the ISIS attracted a larger number of fighters from the rest of the world to come to Syria and Iraq to fight along with it. Subsequently, it became a huge phenomenon; though al Qaeda also attracted fighters from other countries, the ISIS created history. From the US to Australia, there were youths from different parts of the world, who flocked to Syria and Iraq. The idea of a “Caliphate” its narrow ideology and harsh measures – unfortunately, but surprisingly attracted a section amongst the radicalised youths.
Now, what would these foreign fighters do? This is likely to create new issues and problems – legal to societal, in those countries from where these fighters went to Syria and Iraq.
The worse scenario is the return of these fighters, creating local groups in their own countries however small in size, and using the same to spread the radical ideology of the ISIS.
One should not discount the idea of Caliphate now getting franchised and get further diffused.
The Caliphate may have been destroyed in Syria and Iraq. However, the threat from the ISIS is far from over.