What comes after ISIS? ‘There is nothing, no plan.’


The announcement of the so-called caliphate was a high point for the extremist fighters of the Islamic State. Their exhibitionist violence and apocalyptic ideology helped them seize vast stretches of territory in Syria and Iraq, attract legions of foreign fighters and create an administration with bureaucrats, courts and oil wells. Now, their state is crumbling, The New York Times reports:

But the loss of its two largest cities will not spell a final defeat for the Islamic State — also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh — according to analysts and American and Middle Eastern officials. The group has already shifted back to its roots as an insurgent force, but one that now has an international reach and an ideology that continues to motivate attackers around the world.

“These are obviously major blows to ISIS because its state-building project is over, there is no more caliphate, and that will diminish support and recruits,” said Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington and a co-author of a book on the group. “But ISIS today is an international organization. Its leadership and its ability to grow back are still there.”

There does not even appear to be a plan for governance and security in Mosul in the aftermath of a battle which has displaced nearly a million civilians and caused untold damage to basic infrastructure, The FT adds:

Instead of creating governance structures based on local power and self-policing, sectarian conflict has broken out over heaps of rubble. There is no hope of establishing long-term peace in Iraq if this remains the case…..Iraq’s factions are so polarised that there is little immediate prospect of an effective power-sharing government at the centre. This should not preclude confidence-building measures at local and regional level, such as the creation of self-governing cantons that are capable of self-defence.

ISIS will attempt to exploit inadequate security and governance in Mosul and Raqqa after clearing operations conclude, according to Institute for the Study of War analysts Alexandra Gutowski and Jessa Rose Dury-Agri. ISIS will also continue to adapt to the new security environ by conducting geographically disparate attacks, exploiting seams between anti-ISIS forces, and setting conditions to resurge in alternative terrain.

The defeat of the Islamic State as a “state” will leave two serious questions facing the United States, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams (left). The first is: Who will fill the spaces from which the jihadi group is driven? There is a clear effort by the new Iran-Hezbollah-Shiite militia-Russia coalition to reply: “We will,” he writes for Foreign Policy:

That is an answer the United States should reject. Such a development would cement an anti-American coalition in place, threaten Jordan and Israel, and leave Iran the dominant power in much of the region. To reject this challenge verbally would be a joke, however; it must be resisted on the ground, through the use of force by a coalition that must be built and led by the United States.

“As long as Iran tries to dominate the entire region and Sunni jihadi groups target the United States, the defeat of the Islamic State changes — but does not diminish — America’s stake in Middle East power politics,” adds Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Underlying conflicts among Iraq’s many political forces will also come to the fore as the common cause of defeating the Islamic State recedes, argues Renad Mansour, the author of the recent paper Iraq After the Fall of ISIS: The Struggle for the State.”

Simmering disputes over land in northern Iraq are set to flare up: The leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan, Shiite Arab and Turkmen paramilitary groups affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), local political leaders, Sunni Arab tribal fighters, and regional actors will compete for greater influence in critical hotspots such as Kirkuk, northern Nineveh, and the Iraqi-Syrian border area.

In Baghdad, an intra-Shiite power struggle among Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and Shiite populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is also set to burst out into the open. ….. Importantly, the Abadi-Maliki-Sadr contest is fueled by an increasingly aggrieved population that now believes corruption, not sectarianism, is the root cause of the Islamic State.

“For Iraq to navigate these challenges, it must strengthen local and federal state institutions to combat the power of violent nonstate actors and reach a new understanding of local power-sharing. Only then can the state address the root causes for the rise of the Islamic State and work to translate the current military victories into long-term political settlements,” adds Mansour, a fellow at Chatham House.

Politics & governance…. “There is nothing, no plan.”

At great cost in lives and property, Iraqis have shown that they can defeat the Islamic State militarily. But whether they are up to the political challenges to bring the country together again — or even get the lights turned on in Mosul, or bring the displaced back home, for that matter — is another question entirely, The Times adds.

“Right now we are only fighting Daesh militarily,” said Jabar Yawar, the secretary general of the pesh merga, the Kurdish security forces in northern Iraq. As for politics and governance…. “There is nothing, no plan. We are fighting, and that’s it.”

Iraqi social forum

But Iraqi civil society may provide the basis for developing a democratic policy, some observers suggest.

“Amid the ineptness and corruption that plague the government in Baghdad and the Iraqi state, a thriving civil society has emerged in recent years that may represent the country’s best (and only) hope for the future,” notes Ranj Alaaldin, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Doha. “Iraq’s civil society has braved jihadis, Shia militias and the corrupt elite to do its utmost to foster pluralism and co-existence, and is attempting to hold the elite to account. Its people are better placed to do so than outside actors but lack sufficient support internationally.”

Iraq today can claim a flourishing civil society, a thriving media, and expanded civil and political liberties. By the standards of the Middle East, these are no small achievements, argues Muhamed H. Almaliky, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Whether Iraq’s state institutions can rise above confessional politics will largely determine the next phase in the country’s long quest for stability, he writes:

Collective and sustained efforts will be needed to transform the post-Saddam political order into real progress in governance, communal peace, and economic development—especially for communities devastated by war.  It is unrealistic to expect a swift overhaul, given the repeated efforts for political and economic reform that have been frustrated by the narrow interests of powerful individuals and small groups of the new political class. Perhaps the best hope is that Prime Minister Al-Abadi and his eventual successor will push for incremental measures toward securing Sunni communities and settling disputes with the Kurds. For fundamental change that includes an end to corruption, Iraq may have to wait for the birth of a new political generation.

Shiite militias have been involved in numerous instances of sectarianism throughout Iraq, Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies writes for the Long War Journal:

The involvement of the PMF [Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces] in military operations and the occupation of Sunni cities, towns, and villages and their sectarian reprisals may serve to radicalize Sunnis and push them into the arms of the Islamic State. Additionally, the Iraqi military’s increasing reliance on the militias strengthens Iran’s influence in Iraq, which is also feared by Iraq’s Sunnis.

Sectarian divisions are likely to be exacerbated now ISIS has been displaced, said Bruce Hoffman, a security expert at Georgetown University.

“It’s almost at a new level of divisiveness and an unrelenting decade of bloodletting has made any sense of rebuilding a civil society unbelievably challenging,” Hoffman said.

Therefore, in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic State’s defeat in eastern Syria, the emerging winners will be the Syrian regime and its Iranian ally, says Amr al-Azm, a history professor at Ohio’s Shawnee State University and a member of the Syrian opposition. The ongoing arrangement with the Kurds in cities like Raqqa and Manbij is temporary at best and will eventually break down, causing continued instability and uncertainty in the region, he tells Foreign Policy:

While it is unlikely that the Islamic State will have any operational capability in Syria in the immediate aftermath of the current campaign, the ongoing challenges of partition and regional dynamics ensure that festering ethnic and sectarian tensions will continue to fuel extremism, eventually allowing the next reincarnated version of the Islamic State to re-emerge in both Syria and Iraq.

Now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in its latest rebranding effort, al-Qaida is on the rise in some parts of Syria and in recent days has begun targeting what it calls “organization cells” of the Islamic State group in Idlib and other Syrian provinces, Haaretz reports:

The two groups have considerable crossover – and both claim the mantle of Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaida campaign could be a precursor to demands for a merger or hostile takeover, complete with a choice of death or repentance from rank-and-file defectors.

“The differences between these groups are more in style and tone than in substance,” said Hoffman, the author of “Inside Terrorism.”

Many of Islamic State’s foreign fighters, especially those from Europe, headed to Syria with the expectation of joining al-Qaida’s branch there, then switched to what they believed was the winning side. Changing back will not be very difficult. “Al-Qaida has been waiting in the wings and been letting ISIS take all the heat,” Hoffman said.

The Islamic State and al Qaeda and their respective followers revile each other, says Princeton University’s Cole Bunzel, the author of From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State:

Al Qaeda loyalists describe Islamic State partisans as “extremists,” “Kharijites,” and “takfiris”; the Islamic State, in turn, has dubbed al Qaeda devotees as “the Jews of jihad” and loyalists of the “Sufi” leader of the heretical Taliban. This split is simply unbridgeable. It may appear to be of recent vintage but is in fact rooted in theological and strategic differences in the jihadi world that go back decades. Jihadism, in short, will remain divided. The Islamic State, which has been around in one form or another since 2006, will almost certainly survive. So will al Qaeda. Neither will swallow the other, and neither will make amends.


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