The Islamic State proclaimed by the Iraqi jihadist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul on June 29, 2014, is about to cease to exist. At the present time, the last 1,000 or so fighters of the caliphate are corralled into a square kilometer of ground in the lower Euphrates Valley village of Baghouz. The end will be bloody. It is surely imminent.
But while the demise of the brutal jihadi quasi-state is surely to be welcomed, it is also important to place it in perspective. This is so for two reasons.
Firstly, because the demise of the caliphate does not mean the end of the organization that established it. We are likely to be hearing again from the nucleus of Iraqi Sunni jihadists who launched this enterprise.
And secondly, because for all its many and terrible cruelties, Islamic State was only a single manifestation of a larger crisis still under way across the entirety of the land area comprising Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
This crisis is ultimately one of state fragmentation, and sectarian war of succession. In this context, there is something else worth noting: The title of most brutal enterprise, at least in terms of verifiable body counts, belongs not to Islamic State but to the Assad regime and its allies.
Regarding the first point, Baghdadi himself, according to reports, has not remained in the Baghouz enclave with his 1,000 fighters to play out the last act.
At some point in recent weeks, the ISIS leader made his exit, almost certainly to somewhere in Sunni central Iraq. This was where Islamic State as a movement was born. It is already clear that its leaders intend this to be the space in which it will be reborn.
ISIS came out of Iraq, and throughout the time of its existence as a quasi-state, it remained in essence an Iraqi entity. The core leadership of the movement was Iraqi throughout – Baghdadi himself, Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, Samir al-Khlifawi and many other names, most of them now dead.
ISIS indeed came into being, it is worth remembering, as a result of a power struggle in late 2013 in which Iraqi jihadists sought unsuccessfully to impose their own leadership on the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda. This effort was unsuccessful, leading to the emergence on Syrian soil of two rival Salafi jihadi projects – Islamic State and the Syrian-led Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
As of now, once the final battle at Baghouz is concluded, ISIS looks set to concentrate on preserving and developing its networks of support in its heartland of Sunni central Iraq. According to recent studies by the Pentagon, the Institute for the Study of War and the UN, ISIS still has around 30,000 fighters available to it across Iraq and Syria. It also does not lack for funds. ISIS has access to hundreds of millions of dollars deriving from its four-year taxation of the caliphate’s inhabitants, its looting of the banking system when it entered Mosul in June 2014, and its trade with both the Assad regime and rebels during the course of the war.
It also has existing networks of support. In Iraq a couple of months ago, this reporter witnessed the lines of support and communication that Islamic State is quietly building in the area south of Mosul city: from the town of Hamam Alil, across the Tigris River, through remote villages and hamlets, to the caves of Qara Chouk; in the Hamrin Mountains in Diyala province, Hawija, eastern Salah al-Din province, Daquq. Quietly and industriously.
Even as the global media watch the last stand of the diehards at Baghouz, ISIS has already shifted its own focus. The intention is to build an infrastructure that will then, at the opportune moment, strike again in the cities of Iraq, and Syria, too.
The reason this, or a rival Sunni Islamist project, is likely to once again emerge to prominence is that the final twilight of the caliphate at Baghouz will not settle any of the issues that led to its emergence, and of which it was a symptom.
The main butcher of civilians over the last decade in the area in question has been the Assad regime.
Its actions, according to information revealed by the testimony of the defector “Caesar,” among others, include responsibility for the systematic killing of thousands of civilians incarcerated in its jails in the course of the war.
Recently, Maj.-Gen. Mohamed Mahla, head of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, told relatives of Syrians who were arrested and vanished in Deraa province that they should “forget” about anyone taken before 2014, according to a report on the Syrian Observer website.
The air strategy of the regime and its Russian allies involved the deliberate and systematic targeting of civilians.
All this reveals a brutality on a level of scale and system beyond the more primitive savagery of the Islamic State.
But the point is not the gauging of levels of vileness. Islamic State and the Syrian Sunni Arab rebellion are defeated. But in both Iraq and Syria, the Sunni Arab population remains. Both countries are fractious and divided. The Assad regime rules over only 60% of Syria. Even within its area of control, Iran and Russia have the final say on key issues. The Turks and their Sunni Islamist allies control 10% in the northwest. The Kurds and their Western backers control an additional 30%.
In each of these areas, a slow-burning insurgency is growing, supported by one of the other players. The regime, and Turkey, and ISIS are all active in the Kurdish-US zone. The Kurds are active in the Turkish zone, seeking to counter and take vengeance for the crimes of the Turks and Sunni rebels against the Kurdish population in Afrin. And in parts of the regime-controlled area, in particular Deraa province, there is simmering Sunni unrest at the regime’s closing of accounts with the population.
In Iraq, while central government authority is nominally stronger, there remains a Kurdish population in the north almost entirely in favor of separation from Baghdad, and prevented from splitting away only by force. There is also a Sunni Arab population in the center now subject to the whims of the Shia militias that are officially part of the state security forces. It is among this population that ISIS will now seek to implant itself.
Fundamental questions of borders, state legitimacy and ethnic-sectarian estrangement remain unanswered in Syria and Iraq. Add to this the penetrated nature of these spaces, with foreign powers, including Russia, the US, Turkey, Iran and Israel, active within them, and it becomes clear how little will be settled when the smoke over Baghouz clears.
One should surely celebrate the demise of Baghdadi’s caliphate. It was one of the most savage and cruel manifestations of a cruel region. It is good that as an entity marked on the map, it will shortly be no more.
However, both the organization that spawned this entity, and the broader reality within which it emerged are still very much present.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Jonathan Spyer