What’s beyond the defeat of ISIS?

A member of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), seen with the Islamic State flags in the background, walks outside of a building in the border town of Jarablus, Syria, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RTX2NQ7V
Editor's note:

Many of the current crises in the Middle East stem from past American successes, writes Dan Byman. Could that dynamic be in play today, too? Islamic State forces are on the run, but the United States is not poised to exploit any victory. This post originally appeared on Lawfare.

Many of the current crises in the Middle East stem from past American successes. After 9/11, American forces overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Later in the decade, the United States pushed al-Qaida in Iraq to the edge of defeat, and in 2011, it helped topple Gadhafi in Libya. In each of these and in other cases, the United States proved skilled in defeating its foes but was not prepared for the problems that followed.

This dynamic may be in play today too. Islamic State forces are on the run, but the United States is not poised to exploit any victory. Rather, the United States must prepare to combat the Islamic State’s likely reversion to insurgent and terrorist tactics, manage the dispersal of foreign fighters, weather an increase in international terrorism, stop allies and partners from turning their guns on each other, and prevent al-Qaida and other jihadist groups from exploiting the Islamic State’s demise. This is a tall order, but failure on these fronts would transform the immediate success against the Islamic State to yet another long-term U.S. failure in the Middle East.

Let’s start with the good news. Since its peak in 2014, the Islamic State has lost almost half of the territory it conquered in Iraq and a quarter of what it controlled in Syria. Among these losses are major Iraqi cities like Ramadi and Fallujah, and territory along the Syrian border with Turkey that is critical for the free flow of the foreign fighters it relies on to swell its ranks. The group’s once massive financial empire has been severely set back by the coalition’s relentless targeting of oil assets and a shrinking tax base as more towns and cities are liberated. Further, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and the Islamic State’s base there, may fall soon.

Islamic State supporters seem to be voting with their feet too. The number of fighters going to Iraq and Syria has plunged in 2016. As many as 2,000 recruits crossed over from Turkey per month in 2015; in 2016, this figure is closer to 50. The group’s march outside Iraq and Syria also seems to be arrested. In Libya, it has lost most of its base in Sirte, and its seemingly rapid acquisition of “provinces” has been stalled. The Islamic State’s own news organs, usually a source of bombast and defiance, are conceding that the group could lose all of its territorial holdings. Because the group relied heavily on an image of success and the lure of living in an Islamic State to attract recruits, military failures are doubly devastating. Not only does the group lose ground and resources, but it also loses its top recruiting pitches.

The Islamic State…deserves much of the credit for its own undoing.

The United States, France, and other members of the international coalition deserve credit for their steady campaign of attrition against the Islamic State’s forces and support for local Kurds, tribal forces, and the other assorted groups fighting the Islamic State on the ground. The Islamic State, however, deserves much of the credit for its own undoing. It has sought to wage war against everyone: Iran, Russia, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian regime, the Iraqi regime, France, and the United States, just to list a few. In contrast to the Nusra Front, the al-Qaida branch in Syria, the Islamic State also shuns or even fights other Syrian opposition groups, including fellow jihadists, demanding their obedience. This “us against the world” attitude gave the group tremendous prestige among the die-hards, but in us-against-the-world contests, the world usually wins in the long-term.

To convert these and other recent advances into true victory, however, the United States needs to consolidate and exploit them. At the end of the last decade, when it was merely the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the Islamic State seemed on the verge of defeat. Ordinary Iraqis had turned against the group, and U.S. and Iraqi government forces devastated its ranks. The group held on by abandoning its territorial control, using guerrilla war and terrorism to continue attacks while waiting for its opponents to misstep. And misstep they did. The Islamic State itself has referenced these prior setbacks as it has lost territory, holding up ISI’s response as a possible model if it gets pushed out of its current haven. Such a shift is a time-honored rebel tactic: when they can, groups usually try to control territory, mobilize the population, and otherwise act like a quasi-state; but if pushed back, they turn to other forms of violence to ensure their relevance. The United States, probably via its local partners, must prepare for a grinding counterinsurgency campaign and help allies erect structures of governance in areas the Islamic State once ruled. These are both difficult tasks, to put it diplomatically.

The dispersal of foreign fighters is another challenge. Foreign fighters are more than effective warriors; they are often force multipliers, indoctrinating others and seeding new violent groups. Veterans of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan, for example, played a key role in fomenting jihadist insurgencies in places as disparate as Algeria, Bosnia, and Chechnya. The number of Arabs who fought the Soviets was probably in the low thousands; Syria has attracted over 30,000 foreign fighters—more than all the past jihads in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq after 2003, and so on combined—and their potential to create new conflicts is staggering. At the very least, we are likely to see the spread of Islamic State tactics. Videotaped beheadings, for example, are one Islamic State trademark, and as its fighters spread they will likely bring this horrific tactic with them.

Countries most at risk are those near the war zone, those that are home to many foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, and those that already offer an emotive conflict that can appeal to die-hard jihadists. It is difficult to predict what the next stirring cause will be, but the formal and informal networks that generated the foreign fighter flow to Iraq and Syria—and that grew tremendously as a result of the conflict—can now be used in the next struggle. Lebanon offers one such possibility, as the presence of the Lebanese Hezbollah—the pro-Assad, Shiite militant group that is the bane of Sunni jihadists—might be an attractive target.

Tunisia might also be vulnerable. At least 6,000 Tunisians have gone to fight in Iraq, and Syria, and Tunisia itself has faced several terrorist attacks from jihadists: 2015 saw repeated terrorist attacks that killed dozens. The regime has cracked down on both peaceful and radical Islamists, raising questions about its commitment to human rights. Additional attacks could make Tunisia even more of a security state. Countries like Tunisia are also at risk because they have used the Syrian conflict as a safety valve, allowing potentially violent young men to go fight there in the hope of diverting attacks at home country. As Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and other countries that have used this strategy have found, it often backfires, stoking the fires of radicalism back home. Syria is not Las Vegas; what happens there doesn’t tend to stay there.

Syria is not Las Vegas; what happens there doesn’t tend to stay there.

Nor will Europe be immune. On a per capita basis, the western Balkans have produced the most foreign fighters who have gone to Iraq and Syria of anywhere in Europe. If even a fraction return and prepare for violence, it is not clear if local security forces can handle the problem.

International terrorism tied to the Islamic State, whether committed by returning foreign fighters or so-called lone wolves, is all the more likely because the Islamic State itself is trying to internationalize the conflict. Since the group strives to maintain an image of success, high-profile operations in the West can compensate for territorial losses. Earlier this year, its spokesman and external operations leader, Muhammad al-Adnani (recently killed by a U.S. airstrike), declared: “The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us and more effective and more damaging to them.”  

The collapse of the Islamic State also creates more room for al-Qaida to reemerge. For the last five years, the group’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and his minions—decimated by drones and the broader U.S.-led counterterrorism campaign—have not been active on the international terrorism front. Instead, the group has concentrated its resources on conflicts like that in Syria, trying to establish itself as a credible local and regional actor through groups like the Nusra Front (recently renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham). This group has succeeded remarkably, enmeshing itself with local opposition forces who admire its dedication to fighting the Assad regime. As the Islamic State retreats, such groups are likely to advance.

Finally, as the Islamic State collapses, members of the U.S.-led coalition are likely to turn their guns on each other (or, more accurately, increase their rate of fire, as they are already shooting at each other). Turkey is fighting U.S.-backed Kurds in Syria, worried that Kurdish successes will inflame Turkey’s own Kurdish problems. In Iraq, a motley coalition of Shiite militias, local tribal groups, and government forces have all helped push back the Islamic State. They are suspicious of one another, however, and are likely to contest the territory the Islamic State once ruled. Maintaining the peace among these fractious partners, and ideally moving them toward a common set of objectives, may prove harder than defeating the terrorists.

Too often tactical success in the Middle East has been followed by strategic failure. To avoid this, the United States and its partners must not rest on any laurels, but prepare now to exploit the very real gains being made against the Islamic State.