Mustafa Bali, the chief spokesman for the Kurdish forces in Syria, made sure to carefully phrase the statement announcing victory over the Islamic State. He tweeted about a “total elimination of so-called caliphate and %100 territorial defeat of ISIS,” words that ended the fighting at the group’s last enclave, the village of Baghuz on the Syria-Iraq border.
Indeed, it appears that five years after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of the Islamic State and weeks of hard fighting over its last bastion, the territorial fight against the terror group is over. But the threat has far from disappeared.
The Islamic State recruited around 50,000 soldiers. It took over territories in Iraq and Syria as large as Britain, and it managed those territories that were home to between 8 million and 12 million people as if they were one unified state.
This is the first time in the modern history of the Middle East that an Islamic organization has established an independent territory and sought to erase international borders drawn after World War I. It’s also the first time a group turned the dream of an Islamic nation led by caliphates into a reality.
The last similar move was when the Taliban conquered Afghanistan in six years and founded a state modeled on the principles of radical Islam. But unlike the Islamic State, the Taliban didn’t aspire to extend its rule beyond Afghanistan or export its revolution to other countries.
The dream of an Islamic state isn’t new and didn’t begin with the establishment of the Islamic State, which started out as a faction of Al-Qaida. This ideology won’t disappear once Syria and Iraq are free of the group, and it will be revived by new leaders who will seek to succeed where ISIS failed.
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The immediate threat is that the Islamic State will change its strategy. Instead of entrenching itself in specific areas, it’s expected to continue operating in many places around the world, set up new strongholds and adopt the tactics characteristic of Al-Qaida and other terror groups.
Its active branches in Libya, the Philippines, Sinai, Morocco, Yemen and Afghanistan as well as its active cells in Europe still enjoy funding and an arms supply. Even when Baghdadi is eventually caught (he probably fled to Iraq’s Anbar province), his underlings in the command chain will still be able to operate independently and employ an intelligence capacity around the globe. In the same way, it can be said that the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 didn’t crush the leadership of his organization, which carried on its local wars in Syria, Yemen and North Africa.
Still, the territorial defeat of the Islamic State is very significant when it comes to the group’s ability to fund its branches. The majority of ISIS’ fortune came from oil fields it took over in Syria and in Iraq. The group also stole billions of dollars that were deposited in banks in those countries, and once it set up civilian rule in the areas it took over, it charged hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money and tolls. Thus it paradoxically used local workers who were still getting their paychecks from the Iraqi government.
The Islamic State established an extensive trade network that ranged from Iraq and Syria through Kurdish territories and on to Turkey. It sold oil to the Syrian government and took over dozens of factories. Now the organization will be forced to find new income sources, which will probably come from donations and other groups, but the funding will be a lot less than before.
The end of military operations against the Islamic State now further highlights the questions of the duration of the U.S. presence in Syria and the future of the Kurds there, who shouldered the greatest burden of the fighting.
Washington’s official reason for its military involvement — fighting terror and blocking the Islamic State — is now losing its meaning, and as long as U.S. troops remain there, their role will be mainly to protect the Kurdish forces from Turkish and Syrian attacks. Syria has made clear to the Kurds they better make peace with the regime if they don’t want to face the Syrian army.
Turkey, which took the Kurdish town of Afrin and is bombing Kurdish areas in Syria, still plans to continue its journey of conquests in Kurdish provinces and destroy what it calls the Kurdish “terror bases” that pose a “security threat.”
It’s safe to assume that when faced with the options of looking after the Kurds (who stood between the U.S. troops and the Islamic State) and making concessions to Turkey, President Donald Trump will choose the latter.
The pesky Nusra Front
Another flammable region is Idlib province, the rebels’ last enclave and home to tens of thousands of fighters from various militias including the Nusra Front, the extremist rebel group also known as Jabhat al-Nusra. Russia and Syria have been planning for months to take over the province and remove the rebels. Turkey is resisting because it fears having to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees.
If no deal is reached with the rebels, this will be a much bloodier fight than the one in Baghuz against the Islamic State. But whether or not an agreement is reached, the main question is still where the militants will go — especially Nusra Front fighters, the biggest armed force in Idlib.
This is also a relevant question for many Islamic State members now seeking a haven. Many of them will return to their countries of origin in the Middle East, the Caucasus, Russia and Europe. There are concerns that they’ll move the front to their own countries from Syria and Iraq, where they could be contained with planes and artillery. That will cause a burden for these countries, which are already busy tracking terrorist cells and thwarting terror attacks, only somewhat successfully.
On top of these new challenges is the burden of helping hundreds of thousands of families who fled their homes over the years during the fight against the Islamic State. According to reports from Iraq, a rehab program the government promised still isn’t fully in effect, and government aid has yet to reach most cities and villages, even though the Iraqi prime minister announced that the Islamic State had been defeated in his country around two years ago.
Iraq is expected to need some $100 billion to restore life in these cities. In Syria, hundreds of thousands of displaced people will have to wait until areas that were once controlled by the Islamic State are cleared of mines and explosives left behind by the group.
The recovery by these two countries will require international help, an option that doesn’t seem too realistic right now, especially after the United States said it’s not keen to help rebuild Syria if the country doesn’t have a stable and agreed-on regime. For these civilians, the end of the fight against the Islamic State is the beginning of a new war of existence.