The battle is over – at least for now. The last significant strongholds of ISIS have been cleared from Syria and Iraqi forces on their side of the border are entering villages in the Euphrates valley for the first time in more than a decade. This particular campaign in the long war against militancy is over. But the broader war goes on.
How will this conflict evolve over the coming months and years? This will depend on several factors: the reaction of the remnants of ISIS and the broader movement from which the group emerged, on decisions made by communities and states involved in the various wars ongoing across the Islamic World, and of course the broader global context in which these struggles play out. This is a complex war – more like the great global conflicts of the 20thcentury, which included multiple smaller struggles than the single, simple war sometimes portrayed.
The first question is what will happen to the militants themselves. The so-called caliphate– announced from the pulpit of a 950-year-old mosque in Mosul in a speech by its leader, Ibrahim Awwad, the 46-year-old former Islamic law student better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – has gone. Its fall was always likely and al-Baghdadi will probably be killed within a relatively short time. Osama bin Laden survived for a decade after the 9/11 attacks, but he had Pakistan to hide in. Realistically, the leader of ISIS has only western Iraq.
The only factor that did not make defeat of the group inevitable from the start was the chaos and violence of the Syrian civil war - the element which allowed it to expand in the first place. With the conflict there decided in favor of the Assad regime, thanks to Iranian and Russian support, we are now moving into a new phase where the fight is for influence over the post-war settlement rather than to eradicate a common enemy. This will generate its own dynamics – and its own new conflicts too.
Baghdadi's bid to recreate a superpower suffered several fundamental flaws which were eventually fatal to his ambitions. Recognizing these are important because they tell us much about the evolution of the movement of extremism in coming months and years.
First, the “caliphate” needed continual conquest to succeed: victory brought a spurious legitimacy, as well as new recruits to replace combat casualties. More territory meant more resources: arms and ammunition to acquire, archaeological treasures to sell, populations to tax, businessmen to extort, property to loot, food to distribute and oil wells and refineries to exploit.
But continuing expansion was never going to be possible. There were natural limits to ISIS’s territory. Going beyond the borders of Sunni-dominated heartlands proved impossible. ISIS was never going to breach the frontiers of strong states such as Turkey, Israel or Jordan. Nor was a lightly-armed Sunni force going to fight its way across Shi’ite-dominated central and southern Iraq, or Lebanon.
Today, ISIS is reduced to the same presence it had almost a decade ago: a tenacious and resilient insurgent group with a taste and talent for brutal terrorist violence, informed heavily by sectarian prejudice.
To retain the same profile and prestige it has enjoyed over recent years, ISIS will have to rely on affiliates. But this is an uncertain business. Those affiliates with tight connections – such as the wilayat Sinai – may remain committed to the central organization. Others will break away. One obvious candidate to split would be Boko Haram in west Africa whose connection has always been tenuous and is particularly prone to factional battles.
A second factor leading to its collapse was that ISIS's extremism alienated communities under its authority. ISIS was warned of the historical failures of groups in Algeria in the early and mid 1990s but pressed on with its ruthless extremist agenda regardless.
The result was that Sunni tribal leaders and other power brokers in Iraq and Syria who had once seen significant advantages in accepting the group’s authority - relative security, a rude form of justice, and defense against perceived Shi’ite and regime oppression – turned against their new rulers. The speed at which its new pseudo-state fell apart shows how superficial any loyalty to the group was.
This means that going forward, it is al-Qaeda, the veteran group led by Ayman al Zawahiri since the death of bin Laden, that now has the advantage in the global rivalry for leadership of the extremist movement. Al-Qaeda has been almost eclipsed by ISIS in recent years, but now has a major advantage. Both seek to establish a new entity but al-Qaeda's strategic vision is more long term: only when the conditions on the ground are in place could such a project be executed. In recent years al-Qaeda has privileged building consensus among communities, aware that too much rigor too soon will cause a backlash. Where a tactical withdrawal is necessary – even from somewhere like the highly lucrative port of Mukalla in Yemen – then its affiliates are ready to cede territory. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb are well positioned as the dominant extremist force in the Sahel. In Syria, the al-Qaeda affiliate once known as Jabhat al Nusra but now retitled Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has worked hard to build support among tribes and populations. It may be crushed in coming offensives by regime troops or other forces, but has shown the efficacy of the al-Qaede's doctrine.
Third, ISIS took on the west and regional powers. This was a conscious decision, hard-wired into the movement's ideology and worldview, and not taken in self-defense as some have suggested. The first terrorist attackers were dispatched by ISIS to Europe in early 2014, before the US-led coalition began airstrikes. History tells us that outright victory against extremists is difficult to achieve without a political settlement and socio-economic conditions which remove some of the drivers of extremist ideologies, but militant organizations targeted by the west and allies in the Islamic world are usually forced at the very least to abandon territorial gains, particularly urban centers.
This means that a) we can expect al-Qaeda, or ISIS, to launch further attacks on the west and regional powers in the future, and b) that this will prompt further reaction which will significantly degrade the capacity of those terrorist groups, albeit at the expense of much blood and treasure.
As for the broader region, there are several factors which will make the life of the militants easier. There is ongoing conflict and instability spotted along a broad arc from the north African littoral through to southwest Asia. A common mistake is to decide that just because there are problems in one part, a whole state is unstable. This may be the case in Libya but is not in Pakistan, for example.
Nonetheless, there are ample ongoing low-level conflicts, in Sinai for example, and several high-intensity wars, such as Yemen, which are opportunities for extremists to exploit. Syria remains chaotic, and Iraq is fragmented. The effective destruction of the “caliphate” will lead to the break up of the anti-ISIS coalition, reviving divisions and competition which will open space for militants. Some US policies such as recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel without any apparent understanding of its consequences exacerbates the problem.
Nor, in the event of a drawing down of hostilities in Syria, any funds available for the massive job of reconstruction. Going forward means, even in the event of peace, a mass of angry and unemployed young men which will provide a pool of recruits for any extremist organization that seeks them. Any bids to moderate influence of hardline clerics or ideologues will take decades to have an impact.
There have been four major waves of militancy over the past 50 years. The first two – in the late 1970s and early 80s, and then in the early 90s – remained largely confined to the Muslim world. The third and the fourth – from the mid-90s through to 2010, and from then until now – have combined great violence in Muslim-majority countries with a series of spectacular attacks in the west. This has made them a global problem.
All four waves have followed a similar trajectory: a slow, unnoticed period of growth, a spectacular event bringing the new threat to public attention, a phase of brutal struggle, then a partial victory over the militants. Each has lasted between ten and 15 years.
There are two major problems here. The first is that each wave sows the seeds for the next – increasing polarization, destabilizing states, spreading the ideologies of extremist violence further. The second is that we tend to focus on the last phase of a threat that is declining, rather than that which is growing. We should bear this in mind now as we watch ISIS shift back to its original role as a terrorist organization, not a fully fledged insurgency, and we move into the next phase of the struggle.