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The day after ISIS: the Middle East after Islamic State | The Fall of Raqqa

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Kyle Orton reflects on the US led coalition’s latest military victory against the Islamic State in Raqqa city. Orton argues that the coalition’s emphasis on time, rather than method and durability, will not be sufficient to destroy the terrorist group and prevent its re-emergence, which finds more favourable terrain now in the Middle East than when the group was severely defeated after the Arab Awakening in 2008-10.

Don’t celebrate too soon

The Islamic State (IS) captured Raqqa city, its first provincial capital, in January 2014. Six months later, IS declared its caliphate and Raqqa became its de facto capital. Last Tuesday, the partner force of the US-led anti-IS Coalition, the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), entered the city centre in Raqqa. A deal had evacuated most of the remaining jihadists over the prior weekend, though a determined core remained and still held about 10 per cent of the city. The caliphate is crumbling and the Coalition says IS has 6,500 fighters left. According to the Coalition, this puts IS “on the verge of a devastating defeat”. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe this is true. To the contrary, IS is more powerful at this point, in theatre, even after the military reverses inflicted on it by the Coalition, than in the period after the “defeat” of 2008, and the outlook is more favourable now to IS. Moreover, IS now has an international reach, physically and ideologically, it did not previously possess.

The IS movement has been remarkably institutionally and ideologically constant. It therefore helps to review, briefly, the history of the West’s engagement with IS. During the years of war with the organisation in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, IS repeatedly tried to govern territory — in Falluja (2004), al-Qaim (2005), Ramadi (2006), Baquba (2007), while simultaneously IS was expanding its shadow authority in Mosul. The Coalition, in a pattern that it has repeated, focused on pushing IS out of urban areas — and defined this as a victory that enabled a rapid Western withdrawal. The Coalition’s lack of vision for an end-state and the will to enforce it was exploited by IS, which thinks in cyclical terms of a long, attritional struggle.

The Coalition got its metrics wrong

The Coalition metrics — loss of territory, fewer foreign recruits, dwindling revenue, eliminated leaders — did not capture the spreading influence of an organisation whose bureaucratic structures had matured and remained intact. IS was able to transition up and down the phases of its revolutionary warfare, from a state-like entity into a terror-insurgency and back again, differing from front to front, as needed.

“The evidence from the group’s own internal documents overwhelmingly shows that IS is well-organised, highly committed, and, importantly for the current situation, has developed contingency plans for this situation [when it loses territory], which we’ve already begun to see implemented in liberated cities in Iraq where IS attacks continue to take place,” Patrick Johnston, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and the co-author of an extraordinary study of IS’s internal structure based on its own documents, explained.

By the end of 2008, IS was driven from overt control of all territory and by 2010 IS’s leadership was decimated. Yet, signs that IS was not as badly beaten as believed were visible even in 2008, and by 2011, the organisation was expanding into Syria.

The military reverses were transient; political and social legitimacy were the prize, and the Coalition and its partners fell behind. IS corrected some of its mistakes in the handling of the Sunni tribes, making restitution and reaching out on identity and ideological grounds that brought a number of them back into its fold. Intransigent local officials were assassinated, and others were intimidated into cooperation. This mix of terror and inducement gave IS significant control of the streets and allowed IS to exert power over the economic life of the Sunni areas. This mafia-like behaviour meant IS could extort cooperation out of the population: those who wished for safety had to deal with IS, and necessary collaboration of that kind becomes its own kind of legitimacy over time. With the “Awakening” forces threatened on one side by IS, and being strangled on the other side by an increasingly authoritarian, sectarian, and Iran-dependent central administration in Baghdad that was supposed to replace the support of the Americans as they drew down, IS was able to essentially out-govern the state. To put it simply, the Coalition metrics missed the rather significant fact that IS was winning, when we thought it was losing.

IS’s enduring strength, local and international

There is perhaps some comfort to be taken in the fact that, so far, the expected torrent of returnee foreign fighters to Europe has not materialised. Even if this holds, however, it will not alter the fact that over the last three years IS has built a robust international network, something it did not possess before 2014, which is capable of guiding plots half a world away and has cast a challenge to al-Qaeda’s leadership of the global jihad movement. The end of the caliphate will not affect this capacity.

In theatre, the same outlook that misled us last time animates the Coalition’s assessment of its progress against IS. There were celebrations in parts of Raqqa among those liberated from IS’s overt rule, and this is welcome. But the loss of territory itself “is not an indicator that IS is defeated,” as Johnston put it to me, and beyond some humanitarian relief for a long-suffering population and some symbolic value, it is difficult to call Raqqa a victory at all.

In the first place, IS moved its administrative and military capacity out of the city many months ago, and its senior leadership before that. The choice to move against IS in Raqqa using the SDF, the political carapace for the Kurdish PKK, a terrorist-designated insurgent outfit, meant that the Coalition did not have a professional force capable of urban warfare and compensated by heavily relying on airstrikes. The tactic had severe diminishing returns as IS figured out the capabilities of the Coalition warplanes and their militia allies, allowing IS to take evasive action while the city was nearly completely destroyed.

Reportedly, one-third of the 3,000 people killed during the Raqqa operation were civilians, and the Coalition’s handling of this has important political implications. The population in Raqqa has grave reservations about the takeover by the PKK; aside from their political extremism and demographic alienness, they are perceived, not incorrectly, as being aligned with the Assad regime and Iran. But, as the American footprint increased in Syria this year, it presented an opportunity. Hassan Hassan, co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, wrote over the summer of a shift that was beginning in local perceptions in northern and eastern Syria, where the SDF was being seen as an American project, rather than a PKK one. The US switch to “annihilation tactics,” and its reluctance to allow a deal for the remnants of IS to leave, has made the US appear indifferent to civilian lives and damaged this nascent trend.

Preparing the ideological ground for the end of the caliphate

For IS, the ground has already been prepared ideologically for the loss of the caliphate. This preparation began in an important way in mid-2016, with an address from the spokesman and follow-up statements in other IS publications. IS presented the caliphate as a cause rather than a location. With such a vast global conspiracy ranged against them the loss of territory was inevitable and also inconsequential: merely one part in a cycle by which God tests the believers and purifies the herd before ultimate victory. One indication of progress on this front is that where previously the US had tens of thousands of troops on the ground battling IS, now it outsources the ground battle. IS takes this as evidence of weakening American resolve, and the doubts about US constancy are hardly confined to America’s enemies at this point. IS’s narrative can seem like self-consolation, but it is a message that goes back to the first leader of “the State,” Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), who in 2007 and 2008, at the nadir of IS’s fortunes, spoke in similar terms. Al-Zawi’s definition of victory and defeat — conceived as long-term and ideological in nature — held up better than the Coalition’s short-termist view, and the appearance of vindication gives current IS propaganda, which downplays the importance, in a historical sense, of the wounds IS has suffered, a credibility and resonance it would otherwise not have.

IS’s defeat would require that an effective, legitimate order be put in its place, and on that score all indicators — political, social, economic — are negative. In Raqqa on Thursday, the SDF declared “victory” under a massive banner of the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, a terrorist and war criminal who sits in the jail of a NATO ally, and the SDF/PKK was then revealed to be negotiating a deal on autonomy with Assad and Iran, mediated by the Russians. All the worst fears of local populations about the PKK seemed to be realised at once. Soon there will be a push from the Iraqi side of the border to clear out Anbar by forces penetrated by Iran’s agents and proxies, and on the Syrian side the Iranian-led pro-Assad and the US-SDF coalitions will continue chipping away at IS’s urban holdings in Deir Ezzor. The way in which the caliphate is being unravelled embeds political victories for IS within their military defeats, and those political victories are far more important in the grand scheme of things, able to be cashed in later when the circumstances are maximally beneficial to IS.

Iran expands its influence

The eruption of the Kirkuk crisis at the moment Raqqa was falling gave a clear indicator of all that had gone wrong with a rushed military campaign that took very little account of underlying political issues, while opening the way for Iran to assert its hegemony over the northern areas of the Middle East. This Iranian imperium will not be a stable one. A preview of this has been seen in eastern Syria in recent weeks. Iran lacks the manpower, local buy-in and know-how to pacify these zones. But Tehran can use its outposts in the Fertile Crescent to create regional mayhem on its own account and its presence can inflame sectarianism sufficiently to allow IS — and indeed other jihadist groups now moving into the security vacuum — the space they need to survive for quite some time.

By placing all the emphasis on the timing, rather than the method and durability of IS’s defeat, and ignoring wider political dynamics, the Coalition has achieved little — apart from the destruction of the cities  — that is likely to last very long. The deck has simply been reshuffled ahead of the next round of war.

This blog is part of the BICOM research series The day after ISIS: the Middle East after Islamic State. You can read the other entries in the series here.

Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst and research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.