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The end of the ‘caliphate’ does not mean the end of Daesh

Daesh’s defeat in Mosul — from where it proclaimed its “caliphate” three years ago — and its impending defeat in its capital Raqqa have bred a sense of triumphalism. But this euphoria may be misplaced and is certainly premature, given the grave threat Daesh continues to pose in Iraq and Syria — whose territories formed the “caliphate” — as well as regionally and internationally.

The “caliphate” was always doomed, its collapse a matter of when, not if. But its downfall does not mean the end of Daesh. The terrorist group existed prior to its “caliphate,” and will continue to do so afterward, reverting back to guerrilla-style militancy in Iraq and Syria, and undertaking business as usual further afield.

Of course, running a pro-state came with benefits, but also responsibilities and burdens. The absence of the latter might be something of a blessing for a group that was never going to have the necessary manpower, regional alliances or international acceptance to run an effective state. For one thing, state institutions and forces are far easier to identify and target than an insurgency — in that sense, defeating the “caliphate” was the easy part.

It will not impact the “lone-wolf” attacks that have been its hallmark internationally. Furthermore, the region and the world will likely face a dispersal of extremist, violent, battle-hardened fighters that will be difficult to track.

Daesh, like its estranged parent Al-Qaeda, is a franchise rather than a centralized organization. This means the defeat of the “caliphate” will not significantly hinder Daesh’s various branches beyond Iraq and Syria, which may benefit from a subsequent influx of experienced fighters.

But many militants who were defending the “caliphate” may simply go underground. After all, circumstances in Iraq and Syria will continue to provide fertile soil for Daesh and its ilk. The very forces aligned against it, from both coalitions, have contributed to this fertility, causing massive civilian casualties and destruction, and committing war crimes and other abuses.

If we look only at Mosul, and only at the last few weeks of the nine-month campaign to liberate it, reports make for grim reading. Amnesty International said civilians in the western part of the city have been “subjected to relentless unlawful attacks by Iraqi government forces and members of the US-led coalition.” This has resulted in “disastrous consequences for civilians.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has highlighted “reports of unlawful executions and beatings by Iraqi soldiers” of men and boys fleeing Mosul. Separately, HRW said Iraqi authorities are committing “war crimes” and carrying out “collective punishment” by forcibly relocating families with alleged Daesh members to a closed “rehabilitation camp” east of Mosul.

The UN human rights office said it is seeing “an alarming rise in threats, specifically of forced evictions,” against people suspected of being Daesh members and against relatives of suspects. “That is in clear contravention of the Iraqi Constitution as well as human rights and humanitarian law,” the UN said.

It seems nothing has been learned from Al-Qaeda’s defeat in Iraq, where continued grievances among the country’s Sunni Arabs toward a repressive, sectarian state then gave rise to Daesh.

Sharif Nashashibi

Meanwhile, videos have surfaced appearing to show Iraqi security personnel brutally beating and extra-judicially executing detainees, including throwing one off a cliff. And The Guardian newspaper reported on Saturday: “Unidentified corpses are being fished out of the Tigris River, with human rights observers suggesting government forces are behind the deaths.”

Winning hearts and minds — a crucial supplement to any military operation — should be relatively easy with regard to people who have suffered so much under Daesh. But their “liberators” are adding to their misery, and in some cases acting no better than the terrorist group. This is not limited to Mosul or even Iraq.

And what about the equally vital matter of post-Daesh governance? “There is nothing, no plan. We are fighting, and that’s it,” Jabar Yawar, secretary-general of the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq — which has been an integral ground force against Daesh — said last week.

As former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said: “Everyone is in a hurry to achieve a military victory, without regard for the destruction or the day after.” This is inexcusable given how much time was spent preparing for the battle and waging it.

This, sadly, has been a hallmark of the war against Daesh and the wider “war on terror.” We have heard much about fighting terrorism and drying up its sources of funding, but hardly a peep about addressing legitimate grievances that terrorist groups exploit to garner recruits and support. In effect, we are tackling the symptom, not the cause — such a short-sighted strategy is doomed to fail.

It seems nothing has been learned from Al-Qaeda’s defeat in Iraq, where continued grievances among the country’s Sunni Arabs toward a repressive, sectarian state then gave rise to Daesh. Furthermore, addressing grievances should not fall victim to simplistic arguments there is one cause or party behind its emergence and expansion, or that there is a one-size-fits-all solution.

Though there is undoubtedly a common thread in terms of the group exploiting alienation, disenfranchisement and abuse of power, there are differences in circumstances between countries in which Daesh has a significant presence. For example, the sectarianism on which it has thrived in Syria and Iraq does not apply in Egypt and Libya.

And it would be a grave mistake to assume that the problem and solution lie solely in the Middle East and North Africa. The “lone-wolf” terrorist attacks in Europe are overwhelmingly a home-grown phenomenon, not an imported one.

As such, military operations against Daesh must be carried out with utmost care and concern for civilians, but this should be just one aspect of the wider war. It must be accompanied by hearts-and-minds campaigns and post-war reconstruction, governance and reconciliation. In addition, regional and international cooperation must identify and address not only commonalities in circumstances and grievances, but also differences.

All this should go without saying, but sadly the outlook does not look promising. Various governments, forces and parties are treating this purely as a security issue, with many of those at the forefront committing atrocities or contributing to the grievances that breed radicalism.

Meanwhile, conflict in Syria and Iraq is likely to intensify as competing forces fight over the carcass of the “caliphate,” as Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum looms, and as Turkish and Kurdish forces gear up for a potential showdown in Syria. All this as nationalist populism continues to make gains across much of the world.

If Daesh somehow does not manage to exploit all these factors, other groups like it will. In other words, unless lessons are learned and different approaches are taken, Daesh will either experience a resurgence or be replaced, perhaps by something that does not yet exist. Victory? Not yet. Not by a long shot.

• Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs.