Mission Accomplished Redux: Back 2 Iraq (and Syria)


Following the effective liberation of al-Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces (and the recapture of Hawija, ISIS’ last urban stronghold in Iraq, by government forces), many have been quick to proclaim total victory over the Islamic State, who once called the city its capital. ISIL has gone the way of the Ummayads, Abbasids, Fatimids, and other caliphates: into the proverbial dustbin of history. Yet, what does that mean? Certainly, the recapture of Raqqa and ouster of ISIL forces (as well as the rapid decline in territory inflicted over the last few months), signals the death of ISIS as a geographically-inscribed, territory-controlling pseudo-polity. But ISIL is (or, was, rather) at the same time a pseudo-state, an insurgency, and a global terrorist organization. Indeed, in the popular American consciousness, ISIL tends to be seen as an international terrorist threat first, and a geopolitical actor second. Therefore, if the notion of “victory”, makes us complacent to the continued challenges we face in the region, we should abandon it altogether. The recapture of al-Raqqa is a blow struck to only one of the many faces of ISILS.

We should not have any illusions that the destruction of the Islamic State will dramatically impact their ability to enable, coordinate, and encourage terror attacks around the globe. Though, it bears mentioning, though, that (obviously) the recapture of Raqqa will not particularly do ISIL any favors. ISIL accrued so much support and managed to attract thousands of fighters to its cause because of its stupendously successful summer 2014 offensive. Truly, nothing succeeds like success. As sure as it is a proto-state, it is also a global terror brand. Why else would Boko Haram, embroiled in a conflict around 3,000 miles[1] from ISIL, affiliate themselves with ISIL if not for what ISIL symbolized and projected to the whole world. The loss of Raqqa is thus certainly bad for ISIS in this regard, and might impair its ability to inspire and carry out terror attacks. However, their dramatic loss of territory over the last two years or so unfortunately has not engendered a substantial decline in ISIL’s activity qua terrorist group. This casts doubt on the extent to which their military losses might translate into counterrorism gains. Moreover, it is likely that, as the Atlantic put in last March, “The Idea of ISIS will outlive the Caliphate.” Stripped of territory and even of prestige, ISIL might still live on in the hearts and minds of its fighters and most fervent devotees. As Jean-Marc Rickli of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy told The Independent, “for Isis to remain relevant they have to hit the headlines, so it will go after easier and softer targets…what we’re witnessing is an increase in the number of attacks in the West…the destruction of Isis in Syria and Iraq will probably increase this phenomenon, not only in the West but in Asia.” This is not to say that ISIS will grow stronger, but as Dan Byman put it, “there are many reasons not to buy fear mongers’ arguments that the Islamic State will win by losing. But a more lasting victory will require following up on the military campaign and resolving new problems that the Islamic State may attempt to exploit.”

Not only does the victory of the SDF in al-Raqqa have questionable impact on their threat as a terror organization, further complications abound like the reconstruction of cities absolutely decimated by the counter-offensive against ISIL. ISIL may not control it anymore, but Raqqa lies in absolute ruin. Moreover, many analysts have long predicted an increasingly empowered al-Qaeda benefiting greatly from ISIL’s decline. Others have more dire predictions: Christopher Meserole of Brookings maintains that, “we’ll likely witness either a resurgent al-Qaeda or a virulent Islamic State insurgency—or, in the worst-case scenario, both,” in an article in which he describes how al-Qaeda is actively recruiting ISIL fighters. To conclude briefly, we ought not be overeager sound the death knell of ISIL too early, especially if it will make us complacent towards emerging threats and challenges in the region.


[1] (and this is a very rough estimate)

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