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The strategic challenges surrounding the defeat of ISIS

In recent months, the Islamic State (ISIS) has carried out bombings in Baghdad, Saudi Arabia and is suspected of being behind or inspiring deadly attacks in Turkey, Bangladesh, France and Germany. At the same time, an American-led coalition is making rapid progress by recapturing 20 per cent of ISIS-held territory in Syria and 47 per cent in Iraq signaling the beginning of the end of ISIS’s territorial ambitions. Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL recently told a meeting of coalition foreign and defence ministers that the liberation of Mosul is in sight while plans are also reportedly afoot to take ISIS’ Syrian capital of Raqqah.

Yet while this raises the spectre of the territorial defeat of ISIS, it also brings to the fore other issues surrounding the ‘day after ISIS’ that require new strategic thinking.

Governance is crucial

The coalition is already planning for the challenge of governance in the areas retaken from ISIS. In his briefing, McGurk warned that unless the coalition can “sustain the victories by holding cities after their liberation, our success may not be lasting” and emphasised providing humanitarian relief and government services to care for the displaced.

A potential scenario for the ‘day after’

While this is undoubtedly crucial to success there are several other key issues that require strategic thinking. In June I attended a Herzliya Conference simulation discussing the ‘Day after ISIS’ which imagined a future scenario of Kurdish, Turkish, Saudi Arabian and US troops conquering Raqqah while Turkish, Iraqi, pro-Iranian Shiite, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Kurdish Peshmerga forces – aided by massive American aerial support – succeed in re-capturing Mosul. With control over Mosul subsequently divided between Kurdish, Turkish, Iraqi, and Shia militia forces, the scenario posited that the Iraqi government demand all foreign fighters leave the city, with Assad making a similar demand – that all foreign fighters (apart of course from his allies the Iranians and Hezbollah) leave Syrian territory.

Following the coalition victory, the scenario speculated secret talks taking place between Kurdish leaders in Iraq, Syria and PKK representatives on announcing the establishment of a Kurdish state. Meanwhile Hezbollah and Iranian forces successfully take control over an area in the Syrian Golan Heights on the border with Israel. An additional challenge to the international community comes in the form of an even greater humanitarian crisis and refugee problem in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, in the ‘non-simulation world’ UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Lise Grande, recently warned that approximately 660,000 people are expected to flee their homes and as many as 1.5 million people will be severely affected in the operation to retake Mosul. If the current international response to the refugee crisis is anything to go by, it will be completely unprepared for such a crisis.

With the above scenario in mind, and with the territorial victory over ISIS now in sight, it is worth considering the main, future strategic issues facing the international community.

The future of foreign forces – The military victory over ISIS will most likely leave Iranian, Hezbollah, Russian, Kurdish, and potentially Turkish troops on the ground in areas of Iraq and Syria. And while the central governments may demand their withdrawal, it’s unlikely any of these forces – having spent blood, toil, tears and sweat fighting in the civil war – will be in any hurry to leave now that ISIS has been vanquished. In light of this, the ‘day after’ ISIS will likely create an even more complex array of foreign forces in Syria and Iraq all jockeying to advance their interests.

The territorial future of Syria and Iraq and the ‘Kurdish Question’ – In the post-ISIS world the US continues to support the territorial integrity of Iraq, but Kurdish forces who constitute the main fighters against ISIS in Syria are likely to reject this. Whether the Kurds of Iraq and/or Syria (who may attempt to create a contiguous slice of territory by joining the three cantons they currently control) decide to announce a referendum for independence or simply settle for the status quo of de-facto control on the ground is still unclear. Moreover, the Turkish response is also uncertain. Turkey may be willing to accept a Kurdish referendum in Iraq as long as the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds don’t unite and Turkey maintains a military presence in Mosul. In any event, despite US official policy, Iraq and Syria have become like humpty dumpty – no one is going to be able to put them together again.

Iranian/Hezbollah threat to Israel – The Iranian axis of Iran, Assad, Hezbollah and some Iraqi Shia forces will be significantly stronger in the post-ISIS world with greater capacity to threaten Israel. Hezbollah will likely re-focus its energy on establishing domestic power inside Lebanon, although it may be challenged by the recent demographic changes within the country in the form of a million Syrian, Sunni refugees who see the Shia group as an enemy. The axis will also likely prioritise establishing military infrastructure along the border with the Golan in order to facilitate a ‘second front’ against Israel. Israel has already taken steps to foil hostile moves by Iran and its proxies in southern Syria, but the strengthening of the axis could create further national security headaches for Israel.

ISIS returnees to Europe – Reuters recently quoted Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston who studies extremist groups as describing “a growing understanding that the idea of the caliphate is dying and more and more the leadership is calling on foreign fighters not even to come to Iraq and Syria but to go elsewhere or to commit violence locally”. Yet even without these warnings, the military defeat of ISIS could trigger the return of hundreds of surviving European ISIS fighters to their homes in Europe. As demonstrated by the recent so-called “lone wolf” attacks in Bavaria and Nice, European security forces are woefully ill-prepared to deal with the threat of domestic terrorism. Highly-trained, radicalised, sleeper cells or formerISIS fighters could do even more damage.

Calev Ben Dor is BICOM’s Director of Research