Trump vs ISIS: phantom victory

The bitter legacy of the last military struggle in Iraq-Syria hangs over the next.

Paul Rogers
31 January 2019
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A soldier of a special unit of the Iraqi Interior Ministry in the ruins of the old town of Mosul,Iraq. February 2018. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.

What are the prospects for stability in the Iraqi and Syrian territories where ISIS's "caliphate" ruled for four years? A United States-led aerial bombardment, allied to Baghdad's own reconstituted army and Shi'a militias on the ground, succeeded in driving ISIS forces out of their urban strongholds, Iraq's Mosul and Syria's Raqqa, in the second half of 2017. The cost, both to civilians and infrastructure, was immense. Compounding the damage is that the anti-ISIS campaign now appears more of a phase in the war than a means to end it (see "The myth of the 'clean war'", 24 November 2017). 

True to form, President Trump's view is that ISIS has been defeated, a stance that suits his "bring our boys home” rhetoric. Such triumphalism can be discounted, though even serious journals report that ISIS now controls just a small parcel of eastern Syria's  Euphrates valley – and predict the movement will lose that in the coming weeks (see Kyle Rempfer, "US in ‘early stages’ of withdrawal, as ISIS squeezed into a few square miles", Military Times, 30 January 2019).  

But much bleaker assessments also swirl around Washington. Analysts note that ISIS is still mounting dozens of attacks in Iraq each month, most small in scale but many deadly. The Defence Intelligence Agency says in an August 2018 report that reassembled ISIS units are preparing to fight a guerrilla war in both Syria and Iraq, with backing from up to 30,000 paramilitaries. Dan Coats, director of national intelligence, told the Senate intelligence committee on 28 January that "ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria". 

If such forecasts prove accurate, what is happening in the areas taken back from ISIS will become a key factor in the coming phase of war.  

A sectarian opening

It is now widely accepted that the repression of Iraq's Sunni minority under the government of Iraq's former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki helped to fuel the conditions that gave rise to ISIS. A recent column in this series cited evidence that the successor Iraqi government, also Shi’a dominated, is once more adopting harsh measures against elements of Iraq’s Sunni population. 

A report by the researchers Kristen Kao and Mara Revkin finds that, in Baghdad-controlled areas, more than 19,000 people have been detained on terrorism-related charges since 2014, with over 3,000 sentenced to death in trials sometimes based on thin allegations, perhaps involving torture, and lasting only minutes (see "Trump's trap: leave vs remain", 17 January 2019) Such circumstances, bolstering a widespread belief among Iraqi Sunnis that they are being deliberately marginalised, help ISIS and other militias to gain renewed sympathy. 

But two other elements are at work in explaining why a dispersed movement without a strong territorial base is able to persist as a threat. The first is that many parts of northern Iraq are essentially ungoverned territory without a centralised rule of law. This is particularly the case with the hinterland between Kurdish north-eastern Iraq and the country's central provinces whose urban areas (though certainly not rural ones) are largely under government control. In addition, relations between Kurdish and Iraqi government security forces are poor. This context makes it possible for ISIS groups to establish themselves in small but strategically vital regions.

The latter include the Qara Chokh mountain range south-west of the Kurdish-majority city of Erbil, and may even extend to parts of Iraq’s larger cities where clusters of supporters lie low. ISIS's current strategy thus combines frequent attacks, probably intended to show supporters that the movement is still active, with a steady process of reorganisation in advance of a larger-scale insurgency (see Ahmed S Hashim, The Caliphate at War The Ideological, Organisational and Military Innovations of Islamic State [Hurst, 2018]). 

The second element relates to the internecine character of Iraqi politics. During Iraq’s bitter sectarian conflict of the mid-2000s, a notable Shi’a militia leader was Qais al-Khazali of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq group (League of the Righteous). It and associated Shi’a militias, backed by Iran, were deeply involved in that US-Iraqi campaign to oust ISIS from Mosul.  

Qais al-Khazali, now a member of parliament, is saying that he expects the Baghdad legislature to vote in the next few months for US troops to leave Iraq – just one indicator of a growing antipathy to foreign influence in the country, particularly among an Iraqi Shi'a political class who see fellow Shi'a Iran as a natural bulwark of its own power.

The corollary of this pro-Iranian stance is to consolidate alienation among Sunni communities, and hand ISIS's skilled propagandists another message with which to appeal to them. Many Sunnis, after all, are still living on the margins amid the ruins of Iraq's Mosul and Syria's Raqqa, witness to the failures of reconstruction, and with reasons enough also to blame Baghdad and western forces for their plight. Until such problems are addressed, any notion that ISIS has been vanquished is fanciful.

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