A quick look at the headlines concerning the Islamic State portray a militant group on the run. At the time of writing, the group is on the defensive in Raqqa, Syria — the last major city it still holds. Three years after the Islamic State announced its vision for a Caliphate spread across Iraq, Syria and the wider region, it has suffered huge defeats in the region.
The United States-backed coalition has already captured over 70 percent of the Islamic State’s territory in Raqqa, with reports from the ground indicating rare surrenders of the group’s fighters. In the past two months, 30 Islamic State fighters have surrendered to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Surrenders amongst Islamic State fighters are rare, as the group’s leadership prevents defections by executing those trying to escape. Recent surrenders, thus, have raised questions regarding the status of the Islamic State leadership, with many hypothesising that it may be in disarray.
As coalition forces advance into Raqqa, reports suggest that about 900 to 1000 Islamic State fighters are still in the area, down significantly from the 3500+ militants present at the start of the offensive in June.
The battle, however, isn’t yet over — as the remaining fighters are putting up a prolonged resistance, using dense neighborhoods and civilian bodies as their shields. Even after the capture of Raqqa — which seems inevitable in the next few weeks — smaller pockets of resistance will remain, mainly concentrated in a string of small towns along the Euphrates River from Syria to western Iraq. These rural areas will be difficult to capture, and although Iraq’s military has already begun operations to retake some of these areas, analysts predict a tough and slow battle ahead.
Nevertheless, the collapse of the Islamic State seems to be nearing, with Iraq’s military (assisted by the US) seeing major victories in the country, and the US-backed coalition driving out Islamic State fighters from large parts of Syria. The Raqqa offensive in fact follows on the heels of the coalition’s success in Mosul — the militant group’s former stronghold in Iraq. The retake of Mosul was the first indication that the battle against the Islamic State was finally paying off — especially as it took over six months of intense fighting. At the start of the Mosul operation, this reality — of the retake of Mosul and nearing the retake of Raqqa — seemed to be a pipedream of sorts, especially as early advances into Mosul backfired, with the Iraqi military taking a long time to make any sort of headway.
Today, however, the picture is entirely different — and although the Islamic State will continue to hold smaller rural areas — its main strongholds, including Mosul and Raqqa, are the real victories for the coalition.
That said, there is a danger– as often has been the case in the global war against terror — of focusing on the military victory, and limiting the challenges to regaining the smaller pockets of resistance that remain.
The root causes — i.e the factors that led to the rise of the Islamic State in the first place — are in danger of remaining unaddressed.
It is important to note that the root of the crisis lies in the political climate that followed the removal of Saddam Hussein after the US invasion of 2003; a need then emerged to replace the security vacuum with a new political elite. As Saddam’s circle was mainly Sunni, the US and western powers relied on Shia politicians to provide the new leadership, as the main opposition to Hussein at the time were ethno-sectarian parties. The US brought these factions to power cementing identity politics in the region. As Fanar Haddad, of the Middle East Institute in Singapore, points out — the politicians who came to power post 2003, were not politicians who happened to be Shia, but rather, Shia politicians with a fundamentally Shia-centric ideology and political outlook.
Further, post 2003 institutions came to be organised along sectarian lines. For instance, the Iraq Governance Council, which served as the provisional government of Iraq from July 13, 2003 to June 1, 2004 was formed along ethnic lines — comprising of 13 Shias, five Sunnis, five Kurds, one Turkmen and one Assyrian. In today’s Iraq, the Prime Minister is a Shia, the speaker of Parliament a Sunni, and the President a Kurd.
This creation of identity-based politics paved the way for sectarian identity to become a key political factor. Prior to 2003, although a limited notion of a Shia identity and a Kurdish identity did exist in Iraq, there was no concept of a homogenous Sunni identity. The divisive policies of the Iraqi state — facilitated by the US — have paved the way for the emergence of a Sunni identity.
It is this emergence of a Sunni identity rooted in the notion of victimhood, that made the emergence of IS in Iraq possible. The group has existed under various names, first coming into existence in early 2004 as the Jamāʻat al-Tawḥīd wa-al-Jihād, or “The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad” (JTJ). The founding ideology of the group was based on resistance to American intervention in Iraq, with foreign fighters allegedly playing a key role in the establishment of its network. At this point, the group was led by the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
Over the years, the group expanded into Syria, going through a number of name changes till it eventually came to be known as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, or the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” in 2013, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The group’s success in Syria is also worth looking at. The group was able to take advantage of the prevailing anti-Assad climate in Syria, coming to control large swathes of territory, along with other anti-government groups. The advance of anti-government forces in Syria, was made possible in turn, by the United States and allies’ assistance to Sunni rebels, who share with the US the objective to topple Alawite leader Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The US greenlighted Turkish and Saudi aid to anti-Assad rebels, supplied these groups with material and financial assistance, and used the CIA to train rebels at a secret base in Jordan.
This not to suggest that the rebels in Syria present a homogenous group, as there is considerable infighting, with the IS militants facing setbacks at the hands of the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army, for instance. However, affiliations change rapidly, and the IS group — when it was known as Al Qaeda in Iraq — had expressed solidarity with the rebels in Syria, following which the US increased aid to anti-Assad forces. The aid began as non-lethal aid, but following a June 2013 White House statement that said there was reason to believe that Assad had been using chemical weapons against rebels, the US decided to extend lethal aid to anti-Assad militias.
As the Islamic State grew in strength, capturing more territory and recruiting more fighters, it turned its attention to the wider region — posing a direct threat to US and western interests. It is at this point that the coalition began concentrating on fighting back the Islamic State, and has finally begun to see significant successes in this war. The Islamic State is most certainly now on the backfoot, and its collapse seems imminent.
The root causes, however, remain unaddressed, with the victory focusing on the defeat of the Islamic State. For a real solution to the crisis in the Middle East, the US must re-examine its dual policy — of complicit support and aggressive resistance, simultaneously — that has shaped the region in the last several years. It is only then that the other factors, namely, of growing sectarianism, the absence of an Arab governance model, and a prevailing security vacuum in the region — all of which contributed to the rise of the Islamic State in one way or the other — have any chance of being addressed.
(This article first appeared in The Citizen)