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CWA # 102, 26 March 2019

Middle East
The End of ISIS Caliphate?

  Lakshmi V Menon

Is it really the end of ISIS? Does this mean the US troops deployed in Syria will see a quick return? With ISIL gone, what lies in Assad’s destiny?

Department of International Studies, Stella Maris College, Chennai

 

According to spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, the US Air Defense Secretary’s brief to President Trump said the territorial Caliphate of ISIL had been completely eliminated in Syria – a jewel on Trump’s crown. On 22 March, Sanders confirmed that the group’s territory had been 100 percent eliminated. As per the US Defense Department, the ISIL no longer holds any territory in Syria.

 

The restraint from Syrian Democratic Forces to give a formal announcement arose speculations. The SDF had been fighting for weeks to defeat ISIL in southeast Syria’s Baghouz, the only remaining ISIL territory. However, on 23 March, the SDF announced the victory of the four-year battle and elimination of ISIL.

 

Is it really the end of ISIS? Does this mean the US troops deployed in Syria will see a quick return? With ISIL gone, what lies in Assad’s destiny?

 

The Digital Caliphate Endures

Following Sanders’ comments, Trump tweeted, "ISIS uses the internet better than almost anyone, but for all of those susceptible to ISIS propaganda, they are now being beaten badly at every level." 

 

ISIL was and continues to be a digital caliphate. At its peak, ISIL’s expanse covered an area across Iraq and Syria equivalent to the size of UK and mobilized 40,000 foreign fighters. This was through the systematic and effective utilization of cyber space. Today without a territory, ISIL is said to be defeated. It is only dismembered. The lone wolf attacks are a proof that the real Caliphate was established in the minds of people world over. Without neutralizing the Islamic State online, success is impossible. Despite the end of territorial rule, ISIL remains a strong power regionally. The hit-and-run attacks orchestrated by ISIS sleeper cells will persist and may even escalate.

 

In these circumstances, Trump withdrawing the 2000 US troops deployed in Syria is worrisome. Concerns expressed by the Generals and experts about the resurgence of the terrorist group in Syria led to the decision to maintain 400 US troops in Syria. According to Mostafa Sager, a former Free Syrian Army fighter who lived under ISIL's rule, Islamic State relied on spies to weaken the FSA. ISIL is already rebuilding networks of support in sympathetic Sunni Arab communities and re-organizing to establish safe havens in Iraq’s Sunni heartland. Experts believe a future resurgence can be prevented only through the return of foreign fighters to their home countries. Previously Trump had asked Europe to take back and conduct trials for the 800 plus ISIL fighters who had surrendered. France and UK responded with strong opposition in the name of national security.


Will Afghanistan see the next IS Caliphate?

In Afghanistan, ISIL’s modus operandi is already in place. Syria, with its own civil war saw many civilians extend support to ISIL in hoping for justice, freedom from human rights violations, Assad regime’s shackles, unemployment and other forms of structural violence. Similar social fabric in Afghanistan may mobilize public support for ISIS. The renewed threat and trauma of Soviet-era atrocities with privatization of the Afghan war may also work in favor of the Islamic State.

 

Overlooking the spread of ISIS to South Asia, particularly Afghanistan, will prove costly for the Americans. The rising numbers of ISIS claimed or inspired attacks in the AF-Pak belt is proof. Soon Trump’s government may have to battle ISIS in Afghanistan. Perhaps Eric Prince will formulate a novel strategy to eliminate the group from the state.

 

Will Assad’s reign continue?

With ISIL gone, Syria’s President Assad will be under direct attack from US-backed rebel groups, European Union, UK and other adversaries. The much-advertised regime change in Syria will become a top priority. Diplomatic, military and economic pressure will peak. Nevertheless, the steady and sturdy Russian support to Assad’s government will endure. The US disengagement from Middle East that started with the Obama administration saw Moscow rushing in to fill the void. Putin, in his struggle to reclaim the great power status, will demonstrate Russia’s growing power and stronghold in the Middle East by continuing military and diplomatic support to Assad. As the common interest of adversaries – the defeat and elimination of ISIL – has materialized, old animosities and agendas will be revisited. Iran will certainly be an element in this fracas.

 

An open clash of Russian and American interests looms in the Middle East. Who will win this geostrategic and politico-economic battle? Will Assad’s reign continue?

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