Within this context, the group will now go underground and its resurgence must be avoided. As Iranian-backed militias actively seek to occupy recently liberated areas, a new vacuum has been created that must be ordered to avoid perpetual conflict.
The sectarian excesses of the government of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, coupled with the messy proxy war taking place in Syria, created conditions conducive to violent militancy. Attracting new entrants to the Islamic faith, as well as those poorly versed in it, Daesh took advantage of the power vacuum, taking control of Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul, as well as Raqqa and large areas of land on both sides of the border.
Symbolism was crucial to its infamy. The group styled itself as a caliphate following its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s YouTube proclamation of Islamic leadership. In minting coinage and issuing decrees, Daesh manipulated the long-suffering Syrian and Iraqi people with the promise of statehood.
In Iraq and Syria, a return to the circumstances that led to the creation of Daesh must be avoided at all costs.
Zaid M. Belbagi
In many cases, where government had been sectarian in nature and privilege the preserve of a select few, the group was able to sweep through a large geographic area with ease. The fall of Raqqa, following a similar collapse in Mosul earlier in the year, does not represent a watershed moment, but rather the end of the beginning in combatting Daesh.
The group retains a slice of territory and remains active online. It should be expected that the group will reappear as an underground insurgency, similar to that which initially grew popular among disaffected Sunni populations. Though Daesh’s bloody acts have been wholly criticized from an Islamic perspective, the grievances that local people had toward central government have not been addressed.
In Iraq in particular, the state must seek to actively co-opt Sunnis, especially into the armed forces, and avoid dividing the population further. Successive post-invasion Iraqi authorities have failed to build a state that all citizens are willing to subscribe to. This was reflected in the ineffectiveness of its fighting men, and the ease with which civilians were absorbed by Daesh.
From the Syrian side of the border, the conflict to uproot the group has been caught in the war of regional and international powers that has delayed efforts to reach a peace settlement. The US and its allies have never controlled so much of Syria; the self-governing Kurdish region to the north, and rebels to the south and east of the country, are client forces of the coalition.
But the Syrian Army, backed by Iran’s Quds Force and Russian air cover, is making great gains. It is taking control of settlements near the Iraqi border and will, in time, form a quasi-border guard to maintain a land route to Iran. Where Daesh’s violent proto-state foundered, Iranian-backed militias are actively seeking to lodge themselves so as to destabilize Syria going forward.
The specter of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) increasing in influence with Daesh’s collapse is problematic, as it perpetuates the weak central government authority that led to regional instability. Now that the Americans and Russians have agreed to “de-escalation zones,” any upset in the existing balance of power may destabilize Syria and Iraq further.
The Iranian-backed gains in Syria and northwest Iraq are striking, and go some way to highlighting the White House’s firmer criticisms of Tehran. As all sides fought the common enemy in Daesh, territorial gains took less precedence. But with the heavily armed PMU, and Kurdish and rebel groups holding disputed territory, the probability of further conflict is great.
Iranian-backed militias are now pressing for control of the oil-rich region around Deir Ezzor, which could be a potential flashpoint for conflict between the uncomfortable alliance that had been combatting Daesh.
In Iraq and Syria, a return to the circumstances that led to the creation of Daesh must be avoided. Rebels without a cause frequently become tomorrow’s militants. Recent events have shown that Daesh’s complete eradication is required to prevent its resurgence locally, and to limit its ability to inspire and conduct acts of terror overseas.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).