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Endgame for Daesh in the Middle East? Implications for global jihad

The battle to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second city with about half a million inhabitants, and a Daesh stronghold for three years, began in October last year. The Iraqi forces, numbering about 100,000, consist of national army and police elements, Kurdish fighters, and members of the largely Shiite Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units. A small detachment of Turkish armed personnel is located north of the city, while US special forces are said to be backing the ongoing assault, along with bombings by US aircraft.

There could be fewer than 1,000 Daesh fighters in Mosul, due to death, arrest or flight. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Daesh leader, is thought to have fled to Syria as Iraqi forces took most of the city. A few hundred thousand civilians are still in the city and are often used as human shields by Daesh fighters.

Daesh is similarly under pressure in Syria: Its so-called capital, Raqqa, is now under siege by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up largely of Kurdish militia, with some token Arab fighters as well, and backed by US special forces. As at Mosul, there are Turkish forces in the region as well.

As the fall of its two strongholds is imminent, this is perhaps the endgame for Daesh and the restoration of order in the Middle East. Though this is an alluring prospect, the reality may be quite different.

The very nature of the forces ranged against Daesh should warn us about the problems that are likely to arise shortly after Daesh loses its territorial bases, since the fighters have very different — and, indeed, competing — agendas.

For the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria, this could be the cherished moment they have waited for, when they can have their own self-governing space, possibly even a sovereign entity. In anticipation of the takeover of Mosul and the neighboring oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the Kurds in Iraq have announced a referendum on independence on Sept. 25.

Any prospect of Kurdish independence will invite the wrath of the central government in Baghdad, and also of Turkey and Iran, with their own restive Kurdish populations, both of which have forces deployed in the region to prevent such an initiative.

In Syria, Turkey is particularly concerned about Kurdish territorial consolidation at its border due to the close affinity of the Syrian Kurds with its own disgruntled Kurds from the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), and the possibility that this Kurdish territory in Syria will provide the training ground and sanctuary for dissidents.

The forces ranged against the terror group in Raqqa and Mosul have very different — and, indeed, competing — agendas.

Talmiz Ahmad

Kurdish territorial gains in Syria will also be opposed by the Iran-backed government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces are racing to Raqqa and will claim control when the city falls. They will be backed by both Turkey and Iran.

While Turkey’s concerns primarily relate to the Kurdish aspirations, Iran has broader geopolitical interests in the region. These relate to maintaining its influence in both Iraq and Syria and specifically the control of the land route from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus, while thwarting Kurdish gains in the north of Iraq.

Thus, the fall of Mosul and Raqqa will unleash a variety of competitions among the internal and regional parties involved in the two conflict zones. This can only redound to the advantage of Daesh and other extremist forces in the region. In the recent fighting, Daesh has shown both resilience and adaptability; its militants have moved quickly from conventional tactics to lethal hit-and-run attacks.

After eviction, Daesh may be expected to show the same nimbleness as when it launches attacks from its peripheral spaces in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Nigeria. It will also maintain a powerful online presence, now focusing more on militancy and war rather than on the idyllic life it had portrayed in its earlier videos to lure young warriors to its “state.”

The political chaos and the virulent sectarian and ethnic divides in both Iraq and Syria will ensure that extremist violence will continue to be a viable option for marginalized and mistreated youth. Images of the brutality being inflicted on Daesh prisoners by Iraqi forces after their arrest could be a major source of mobilization for the next generation of extremists.

Though beleaguered in its home territories, Daesh has also exhibited extraordinary reach: Militants claiming loyalty to Daesh have recently attacked Istanbul, Manchester, Baghdad, Kabul, London, Karbala, and even penetrated Iran’s security cordons to attack two iconic monuments in Tehran. Thus, it can be predicted that loss of its capitals will not diminish the lethal power Daesh can mobilize against its targets worldwide, particularly through “lone-wolf” activists in the Middle East, Europe, the US and even Southeast Asia.

Finally, even if Daesh withers away, other localized extremist groups may be expected to take its place. They may be without its centralized structure or its human, military and financial resources, but they will not lack in commitment or ferocity.

Thus, the principal challenges for leaders in the Middle East will emerge after the fall of Mosul and Raqqa. They will need to restore unity and security at home and adopt policies to shape and consolidate accommodative and multicultural societies so that their states truly become nations.

• Talmiz Ahmad, a former Indian diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.