By Seth J. Frantzman
In this conversation on the future of the Middle East after the Islamic State (IS), we bring together experts to debate the prospects for reconstruction and governance in IS-held territory, the future of the Jihadi movement, how to mitigate against the return of IS fighters, and the future regional security framework. We ask the experts what policymakers need to start thinking and planning after the territorial defeat of the most dangerous terrorist group to date.
With the impending defeat of ISIS in its Iraqi capital of Mosul and its Syrian capital of Raqqa, the once all-powerful black flag seems to have been crushed by the overwhelming power of a 68-nation US-led coalition. Despite all the lip-service from politicians in the West and leaders in the Middle East asserting that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, the reality is that ISIS was not some kind of sui generis movement; it was deeply rooted in the Islamist extremist networks of the Middle East and fed off Sunni jihadist social networks that stretched from London to the Caribbean, Chechnya, Central Asia and Bangladesh. When ISIS is defeated in its territorial “caliphate,” it will simply lay dormant for a few years and re-emerge as a kind of ISIS 2.0, just as Al-Qaeda morphed into other terrorist groups.
The Middle East has been badly scarred in the recent decade of war. The invasion of Afghanistan negated Al-Qaeda its base but set it aloft like floating spores which infected the whole region. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 allowed jihadist networks to grow again as foreign fighters flocked to fight the coalition. From there chaos spread further after the Arab Spring, eating away at Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria and inspiring a new generation of Islamists. ISIS was born of that, promising to erase “imposed” borders and committing to the genocide of minorities and non-Sunni Muslims that it deemed was necessary in order to lay the groundwork for a kind of hell which for ISIS members was a form of heaven. Slavery, mass graves, total submission to religious fundamentalism was enacted. But ISIS isn’t the first movement to promise this purity of a glorious return to an imagined past. When the Wahhabis burst forth from Arabia and attacked Karbala in 1802 an ISIS-like slaughter was carried out. Their own chronicler, Uthman b. Abd Allah b. Bishr, recalled that “they killed most of the people in the houses and markets. They destroyed the dome above al-Husayn’s grave [a Shia holy site]”. From the Wahhabis to the “Mahdi” of the Sudan in 1881, the extremist networks that appeared in India in the same period, to the 1980s mujahedeen and 1990s Taliban, the Islamist rebellions in Syria and Egypt, and the Algerian jihad, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS; the Middle East is only awaiting the next iteration.
The chaos of failed states stretching from Afghanistan to Yemen across the Sykes-Picot (Syria-Iraq) line and across the Sahara and Sahel (Somalia, Libya, Mali, northern Nigeria), will give breathing space and oxygen to a new ISIS that will emerge. The existing non-failed states in the Middle East are not strong enough to impose law and order in the region to sufficiently decrease this power vacuum that occurs mostly among Sunni areas.
Chaos has also given rise to a Shia crescent of power emanating from Iran that empowers Shia militias such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) in Iraq. These non-state forces are slowly taking over their mother-states, which in turn is fuelling Sunni resistance and Islamist structures because the stronger the Shia religious groups become, the more Sunnis feel “disenfranchised”. This is largely a talking point, because Sunni Arabs are a minority in Iraq and Lebanon, but they used to be in charge and demand a return to the glory days that the “caliphate” and other fanciful Islamist promises provide them.
The remaining stable countries such as Turkey, Jordan, the Gulf states, Israel and Saudi Arabia, all know that it is only a matter of time before terror networks strike on their territory and try to infiltrate their populations through refugee communities or local recruitment. They also know they cannot rely on the West to defeat this terror. Approximately 5,000 ISIS members have migrated to the “Caliphate” from EU states, and the Western states have become as much incubators and exporters of what will be ISIS 2.0 ideology, as they are containers of it. Europe is beset by almost daily raids against terrorists and monthly ISIS-inspired lone-wolf attacks. The Middle East is on its own.
The greatest mistake Western policymakers have made is to see ISIS as a network unto itself. Those who would have joined ISIS in 2014 but were too young will come of age and will look for a similar, radical Islamist group to inspire them. In the same way nationalism, anarchism, Communism or soccer hooliganism inspired previous generations, today’s en vogue choice is often religious extremism. The mistake Western policymakers might make when looking at the Middle East “after ISIS” is to not have their intelligence services keep their ears open for the next threat.
The immediate cause of ISIS in Syria and Iraq was chaos and Sunni feelings of disenfranchisement from the state, a proximate factor that is unlikely to change in the coming years. The Alawite-dominated Syrian regime will likely consolidate its control in the urban west of the country. The Iranian-supported government in Baghdad will continue to strengthen its hold in central and northern parts of Iraq. So the Sunni grievances remain. Weak state structures remain. And a pool of ready and willing recruits in the region and across the world remain. ISIS only recruited something like 50,000 fighters, but they had devastating results. It took 60,000 Iraqi soldiers half a year to remove 5,000 of them in Mosul.
The answer to ISIS has been to pretend it was an otherworldly event, as if it arrived from outer space and will return there. But it’s not that. The groups in Sinai or on the Golan that swore allegiance to ISIS weren’t otherworldly, they were local Islamists who sought to back the strongest black flag. They will find another in relatively short order.
Iran ostensibly is a net winner from the last three years of ISIS-induced mass murder and chaos. But Iran has fuelled sectarianism and hatred of its Shia proxies too. Instead of becoming more powerful, it will eventually receive blowback from imperial over-reach, as it attempts to try to control politics in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Sana’a and beyond.
In the near term, after the defeat of ISIS, there will be Kurdish demands for independence in Iraq and autonomy in Syria. This will leave the US with a tough choice between its NATO partner in Turkey and its backed-Kurdish forces in Syria, and leave Turkey and Saudi Arabia with a choice to support Kurdish goals in Iraq in order to better counterbalance Iran.
There will also be a need to re-populate areas devastated by ISIS, including the return of minorities such as Yazidis who suffered genocide. Recent experience on the ground reveals that while some Sunni Arab refugees may return, minority communities are so traumatised they likely will not. A traumatised and exhausted region requires breathing space from a new round of terror, but it isn’t likely to get one.
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.
Seth J. Frantzman is is oped editor of The Jerusalem Post and research associate at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.