The militant group ISIS is retreating, but the war is far from over. While firepower is proving capable of pushing to the brink a group that has terrorized millions of people, mostly in Syria and Iraq, political instability, military interventions, state terror, and brutality all remain in place. It was these ingredients that ushered in the rise of ISIS, which engenders the militancy and violence of other groups, in the first place.
But before we look at the evidence, let us quickly examine the nature of the Syrian battlefield. Reporting for CNN, Tim Lister described the very crowded and complicated nature of the Syria war as it stands today.
“Concentrated in an area scarcely 100-kilometers wide are the Syrian army, its allies, including Hezbollah and Iranian Shiite militia, as well as Kurdish and Arab tribal groups,” he wrote. “Just across the border is the Iraqi army and more Shiite militia, supplied by Iran. In the skies above are US, Russian, Syrian and Iraqi jets.”
The outside forces that are directly supporting, or indirectly sustaining, the war are too many. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which ISIS is soundly defeated while these conflicting armies engage in a new war, against one another, thus sustaining the state of bedlam out of which ISIS was born.
Patrick Cockburn argued in the Independent that the “Syrian Kurds have an interest in fighting ISIS but not necessarily defeating it so decisively that the US would no longer need a Kurdish alliance and could return to the embrace of its old NATO ally Turkey.”
Another complication is that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) - which used to be Jabhat al-Nusra, an off-shoot of al-Qaeda - has been growing stronger in northern Syria after it defeated its rivals in and around the Idlib Province and was joined by a steady stream of new fighters. Its current force is estimated at 30,000 strong.
A Russian-brokered ceasefire has allowed the Syrian government and its opposition to operate freely with the aim of crushing ISIS. But that is only delaying a battle that is certain to follow once ISIS has been eradicated.
There are many fault-lines in Syria, and the many rivals, who are currently united in eliminating or at least pushing back ISIS, do not see eye-to-eye on virtually everything else. Indeed, one has to be cautious not to confuse the retreat of ISIS with an end to the war in Syria.
If the roots of the rise of ISIS are not addressed, it is likely that the victory over ISIS will be short-livedRamzy Baroud
The idea of ISIS
Every news headline related to ISIS seems to be beckoning their demise, in both Iraq and Syria. But ISIS cannot possibly be defeated unless the causes that led to its rise in the first place are confronted and eradicated as well.
If ISIS, represented by the masked militant, is defeated, or transported elsewhere, ISIS, the idea, will live on, because ideas are not confined to a battlefield, or a specific country. The damage of destructive ideas can always find a way to wreak havoc anywhere and at any time.
No matter what amount of violence is applied to quell violent ideologies, they can resurface and flourish once more. Nor is transporting the problem elsewhere a viable strategy. For example, the Lebanese group Hezbollah, along with the Syrian government, had recently reached an agreement with ISIS militants, who finally surrendered their once-stronghold in the Lebanon-Syria border enclave.
In exchange for that surrender, ISIS fighters were transported to Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor province, which borders Iraq. (US-led warplanes, however, bombed some caravans, killing many and leaving others stranded in the desert.)
While Lebanese and Syrian residents were relieved to learn of ISIS’s demise in that part of the country, a new nightmare threatens to begin in a different region. Expectedly, the Iraqi government was angered by the agreement, which is seen as swapping an ongoing bloodbath with a potential new one in a different location. The relationship between the rise, fall and resurrection of militant groups is quite rational, if we dare look past news soundbites.
ISIS’s violence was the culmination of the violence meted out by al-Qaeda and other groups that originated in Afghanistan, and were eventually transported to Iraq after the US invasion of the once-relatively stable Arab country in 2003. The tactics of the militant may have differed, depending on the circumstances, but the lethal outcomes remained the same.
So, if transporting the problem elsewhere is not the correct answer, does extreme, unabashed violence solve the problem? Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, has been reduced to rubble. It has been finally conquered, having been snatched back from ISIS after months of merciless bombardment by the US-led war coalition.
But ‘victory’ can hardly be the term assigned to this moment. Mosul, once Iraq’s cultural jewel and model of co-existence, is now a ‘city of corpses’, as described by a foreign journalist who walked through the ruins, while shielding his nose from the foul smell.
“You’ve probably heard of thousands killed, the civilian suffering,” Murad Gazdiev said. “What you likely haven’t heard of is the smell. It’s nauseating, repulsive, and it’s everywhere – the smell of rotting bodies.”
Actually, the “smell of rotting bodies” can be found everywhere that ISIS has been defeated. The group is now being hurriedly vanquished. Aside from the city of Mosul in Iraq, ISIS’s stronghold in the city of Raqqa, in the east of Syria, has also been defeated.
Those who, against all odds, survived the battles of Mosul and Raqqa are now holed in Deir ez-Zor, which promises to be their last major battle. News reports suggest that ISIS, which once extended a siege on Deir ez-Zor is currently the one under siege. If Deir ez-Zor completely falls, the group would be left with a few, isolated outposts.
The leadership of the militant group, along with its communication infrastructure, is reportedly being transported to a border area between Mayadin and Abu Kamal in Syria and Qa’im in Iraq. Even the open desert is no longer safe. The Badiya Desert, extending from central Syria to the borders of Iraq and Jordan, is now witnessing heavy fighting, centered in the town of Sukhnah.
Brett McGurk, US special envoy for the ‘Global Coalition to Counter ISIS’, recently returned to the US after spending a few days in the region. He talked to CBS television network with palpable confidence.
ISIS forces are “fighting for their life, block-by-block,” he said, reporting that the militant group had lost roughly 78 percent of areas it formerly controlled in Iraq since its peak in 2014, and about 58 percent of its territories in Syria.
The New ISIS
Expectedly, US officials and media are mostly emphasizing military gains they attribute to US-led forces, ignoring all others, while Russian-led allies are doing exactly the opposite. Aside from the numerous humanitarian tragedies associated with these victories, none of the parties involved have taken any responsibility for the rise of ISIS in the first place.
Yet, it is imperative that they do, and not simply as a matter of moral accountability. Without understanding and confronting the reasons behind the rise of ISIS, one is certain that its fall will spawn yet another group with an equally nefarious, despairing and violent vision.
Those in mainstream media who have attempted to deconstruct the roots of ISIS, unwisely confront its ideological influences without paying the slightest heed to the political reality from which the group began.
Whether ISIS, al-Qaeda or any other, such groups are typically born and reborn in places suffering from the same, chronic ailment: a weak central government, foreign invasion, military occupation and state terror.
Terrorism is the by-product of brutality and humiliation, regardless of the source, but is most pronounced when that source is a foreign one. If these factors are not genuinely addressed, there can be no end to terrorism.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that ISIS was born, molded, and has thrived, in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and regions like the Sinai Desert. Moreover, many of those who answered ISIS’s call also emerged from communities that suffered the cruelty of merciless Arab regimes, or neglect, hatred and alienation in Western societies.
If the roots of the rise of ISIS are not addressed, it is likely that the victory over ISIS will be short-lived. The group will most likely develop a new strategy of warfare or further mutate. History has taught us that much.
Strangely, the ‘US-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIS’ and other warring parties seems to have access to the firepower needed to turn cities into rubble, but not the wisdom to understand that unchecked violence inspires nothing but violence; and that state terror, foreign interventions and collective humiliation of entire nations are all the necessary ingredients to restart the bloodbath.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ’The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California. Visit his website: www.ramzybaroud.net.