Anti-Daesh coalition’s progress threatened by unilateral moves
For the 81-member Global Coalition Against Daesh, the events of March and October delivered on critical objectives, having wrested Daesh’s last territory and killed its notorious leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, respectively. At its height, Daesh controlled more than 50,000 square kilometers of territory in Syria and Iraq, covering a population of roughly 4 million people, and boasted pledges of allegiances from sympathetic groups in Africa, Asia and the Caucasus.
Financially, the group operated on an annual budget of some $1 billion, buoyed by illegal oil sales, as well as trafficking people, arms, drugs, and blood antiquities, bringing in revenues of nearly $2 billion a year, which went on supporting a fighting force of some 200,000 men, 15 percent being foreign-born. The scale and complexities of the group’s foundations and ambitions made Daesh a formidable, atypical insurgency group; one that had no qualms broadcasting its aims, justifying them in religious writ, laying the groundwork for them and proceeding to capture those objectives.
In an increasingly non-interventionist, casualty-averse, war-weary world, exhausted by failures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, tackling the Daesh threat required a different approach beyond bullets, bombs and boots on the ground. Daesh’s emergence revealed a critical flaw in overseas interventions that focused on immediate deliverables at the expense of post-war stabilization efforts that could prevent the creation of power vacuums or cracks that are prized by extremist groups. The resulting strategy left the sophisticated aspects of war to the advanced militaries, while the gritty ground-level fighting was carried out by a loose coalition of armed non-state actors and paramilitary forces operating in Syria and Iraq. It capitalized on a mutual interest — the defeat of a common enemy — by a means that spared Western governments from negative public opinion baths, while inadvertently legitimizing the agendas of local partners, some of whom have controversial notions of political oppression or greater autonomy and even outright secession as their foundational principles.
For now, the global anti-Daesh coalition of countries and organizations from five of the world’s six continents still holds and shows no sign of slowing efforts to counter the terrorist group’s re-emergence. These include stabilizing the regions that made Daesh’s growth inevitable in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while also denying access to funding for its remnants, countering its poisonous ideology and propaganda, and curtailing recruitment efforts by preventing the movement of foreign terrorist fighters. These goals recognize that extremism does not exist in a vacuum. Failure to mitigate its indirect causes and propagating factors would inevitably lead to a return of a prescient, insidious Daesh (or even other extremist groups), bathed in the knowledge and experiences of predecessors.
Unfortunately, recent moves by the US and Turkey, as well outside interference in Libya’s civil war, threaten to undo all the progress that has been achieved so far. The decision, for example, to recall US military personnel from parts of the region handicaps international efforts aimed at ensuring extremist groups like Daesh, the White Flags, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and Al-Qaeda are denied opportunities to expand their influence in vulnerable regions. It may even lead to an abrupt end to Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve training programs for the Iraqi army to enhance security and stabilization. Beyond that, it contravenes the US Department of Defense's Stabilization, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction Operations, which are designed to minimize military interventions by maximizing coalitions, multi-nation cooperation and boosting partners in the host nation. In essence, if Washington is the key to keeping a diverse mix of nations, partners and interests focused on counterinsurgency operations and regional stabilization, this sudden withdrawal will result in a return to the sort of turmoil and instability that birthed Daesh in the first place.
It cannot be stressed enough that America’s involvement is needed now more than ever. Although Daesh has been “defeated” territorially, it remains a potent ideological force that former fighters and detainees are not readily abandoning despite revoked citizenships and horrific conditions in detention camps. Even the death of Al-Baghdadi has not led to a mass appeal for clemency. In fact, recent reports suggest that the camps have become radicalization zones, preying on the young and vulnerable, who are especially susceptible given that such an environment is all they have ever known.
It cannot be stressed enough that America’s involvement is needed now more than ever
Turkey’s recent incursion into Kurdish-controlled Syria and attacks on Kurdish-held positions have already led to escapes at detention facilities in Qamishli and Ain Issa following Turkish airstrikes and bombardments. It has also become challenging to gauge the factual from the exaggerated in the stream of reports emerging from the area. This cripples the counterinsurgency coalition’s information-gathering and dissemination functions, which are critical to keeping all members fully informed with relevant, verifiable information. Failure to do so merely guarantees the coalition’s inability to act when Daesh detainees escape and rejoin with remnants or attempt to re-establish Daesh in the chasm between Kurdish forces now allied with Damascus on one side, and the Turkish forces on the other.
Elsewhere, Daesh sleeper cells, supporters and sympathizers have also gone underground, retaining their capability to cause havoc in areas they are less likely to get tracked or monitored by already over-stretched intelligence and law enforcement agencies. These splinter groups are also critical to the extremist group’s online capabilities, which help spread propaganda and radicalizing content and recruit the disaffected. The aim of recruitment this time is not to join a rebuilt Daesh per se, but to enlist lone wolves to carry out attacks on their homeland in the group’s name. For instance, Daesh radicalization operations have become sophisticated enough to target white supremacists in the US, urging them to exploit loopholes in gun laws in order to inspire more mass shootings.
These developments become even more alarming when accounting for activities on the unmonitored dark web, where unregulated cryptocurrency remains a medium for exchange for trafficking in contraband, stolen goods and information, or as payment for services rendered.
The task before any anti-extremism coalition should go beyond using force to exorcise dangerous ideology. It should also deal with a tendency to dismiss extremist propaganda as merely the work of internet trolls who craft morbid jokes, make crude memes and delight in making a mockery of suffering. The repeated instances of such media and commentaries resonate with many disaffected people who subscribe to a Daesh worldview. To them, the persistence of content glorifying extremism and the spurious justifications that anoint groups like Daesh as the sole fixers of a broken world (or systems) is proof of Daesh's resilience and imminent re-emergence. Worse yet, these online activities lend a sort of “staying power” — a credibility and legitimacy that is assured by the world's inability to eradicate it or its remnants.
Going forward, the world is now faced with a Herculean task. Tens of thousands of Daesh detainees languish in camps, which have become a bargaining chip for larger forces vying for control in the region or merely prioritizing their self-interests. Turkey has begun forcefully repatriating former Daesh fighters back to Europe, while Syrian-Kurdish forces have rejected US offers to take custody of Daesh’s more dangerous members. In the eyes of its allies, America has once again regressed to the familiar pursuit of self-interest over participating in global efforts to pursue the greater good. Any attempt to address future threats from extremist groups or even a re-emerged Daesh will come with a steep price, demanding a deeper commitment by Washington that may not be palatable to a glaringly partisan Congress.
For the Middle East, it will remain challenging to trace out what the future will look like before the dust of Turkey’s Syria incursion settles or Libya’s proxy war ends. If Turkey's aim was to have a buffer between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), merely occupying a narrow stretch of land between the Turkish border and SDF-held territory in Syria is hardly going to suffice. The ensuing aggression has also generated more antipathy against Ankara than it solved the issue of an emboldened PKK allegedly supported by the SDF. Now, the latter has sought to align itself with Russia and the Assad regime, leaving the US supporting a loose coalition of rebel groups that will not survive a joint SDF-Damascus-Moscow offensive on Idlib — the opposition's last major bastion.
Iraq’s own domestic issues are already straining newly established security forces that are still undergoing training, further delaying outcomes from stabilization programs and the rooting out of remaining Daesh cells. In addition, should Baghdad move toward prioritizing US aims, it may face stiff opposition from the Iraqi parties, groups and interests that are aligned with Tehran, threatening further instability.
In Libya, the war on Tripoli launched by Khalifa Haftar has also created a suitable environment for Daesh to re-emerge after it was defeated by the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, with support from the US Air Force. Sleeper Daesh cells now carry out attacks and infiltrate new parts of the country, taking advantage of the chaos created by the civil war and the foreign presence in its midst.
On the world stage, the anti-Daesh coalition may have scored some major victories, but it revealed a major flaw in the preparations to counter the Daesh threat in the Middle East. There was very little post-Daesh planning, especially in regards to dealing with the detainees, and vulnerable children in particular. Revoking citizenships depended heavily on sustained stability in former Daesh territories, as it merely involved waiting for the return of the rule of law and capable judiciaries to adjudicate over the detained and mete out appropriate sentences for terrorism-related charges.
However, it all fell apart with the US’ disinterest, which has thrown the region back into chaos and thus necessitated new arrangements. These have already been overshadowed by Ankara’s intent to forcefully repatriate former Daesh fighters. It does not excuse the poor decision to merely wait out the Syrian civil war and Iraq’s slow transition to stability, or supporting a peaceful solution in Libya — countries should have been better prepared to furnish plans (and their alternatives) to deal with former Daesh fighters who were once citizens. Canceling citizenships and rejecting their repatriation only kicked the can down a dangerous, unpredictable road, with ramifications we are only just beginning to see.
The attraction of Daesh and other radical groups will remain as long as chaos, war, oppression and civil wars continue in the region. The only way to ensure a total defeat of this radical agenda and its ability to appeal to large numbers of the young in the region and globally is to offer an alternative to religious sentiments among populations, especially the young, and satisfy their deep desire to be part of public life by supporting moderate groups that accept the principles of civil states, law and order, elections, and the democratic mechanism. All parties of moderation that reject violence should be given a way to absorb the political aspiration of the young to participate in public life through peaceful means, rather than being excluded and their members being pushed further into the arms of radical groups.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell.