The protracted and costly war with ISIS

Hassan Abou Taleb

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There are two kinds of wars and conflicts: some conflicts are resolved in one great battle in which the stronger party wins and dominates the weaker one, while others are not resolved in one, two, or ten battles, stuck in a constant cycle of ups and downs without a clear resolution.

Both types are found in conflicts between states, and some decades ago, groups and organizations seeking to change reality with violence also became parties to wars and conflicts. Thus emerged the phenomenon of asymmetrical wars. These wars are fought between an army or a regular institution on one hand, and on the other hand, irregular parties with no proper territory, with invisible fighters united by an intellectual and ideological principle and supporters from various nationalities, ran by a central leadership at times and a symbolic leadership at other times that bestows legitimacy to local leaders to operate in line with local circumstances.

The involvement of non-regular parties in the battlefield can delay the resolution of the conflict and protract it indefinitely. Examples abound of irregular forces turning a conflict into a series of short- and medium-term confrontations and wars with no end on the horizon: al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia, and jihadist militant Salafi groups and their peers in Africa’s Sahel and Sahara countries. In some of these battles, one of the parties may achieve victory or realize a specific goal, but they would be mistaken to conclusively proclaim victory.

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Therefore, declaring the defeat of ISIS in 2017 in Iraq and in 2019 in the northeast of Syria after the Baghouz battle were not precise claims. Sure, the experience of the Islamic state that the group established was defeated, but the organization itself remained. Its leadership structure survived, as did its members who scattered across the desert between Syria and Iraq and remained in contact with the central and local leaderships in one way or another. More importantly, its thoughts and ideology are still alive in the minds of its followers and some sympathizers who would not hesitate to get more involved in the group’s structures and operations if given the opportunity.

Both the al-Qaeda and ISIS experiences confirm an ability to survive in non-enabling circumstances and prove that the loss of senior leaders to murder or capture means nothing more than a transitional stage after which another leader takes over according to the procedures in place. And when this new leader arrives, he brings along a different methodology that proves the organization’s power and continuity. In both cases, the so-called “shura council” plays a key role in selecting the new leader. The pledges of allegiance from individuals and intermediary leaders also contribute greatly to adding a layer of legitimacy to the process of transitioning to a new leadership and a new approach, all while maintaining the same intellectual and ideological priorities.

All this helps put the murder of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi in its right context. The special operation ordered by US President Joe Biden and carried out by the US Special Forces achieved its objective in killing the group’s leader after receiving intelligence from various parties involved in the war against ISIS; namely, Iraq and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The operation also served as a reminder of the continued US role in that war and reaffirmed that in no way does Washington’s focus on the confrontation with China and the pressures on Russia mean that it will ignore US interests in the region of the Middle East, minimal as this involvement may be compared to a few years ago.

This operation exemplified the so-called “decapitation strike” strategy, which challenges the morale of members by eliminating their leaders, prompting them to reassess their affiliation to the group and perhaps forsake it altogether given their status as the weakest link in terms of security.

At least, this is the goal at which the strategy aims.

However, it has been proven that killing leaders does not lead members to abandon their group; rather, the greatest impact it can achieve is a temporary stage of confusion pending the appointment of a new leadership.

A more accurate explanation is that for most members, the continued allegiance to the group is contingent upon the strength of ideological conviction in the morals and objectives of the group, rather than upon its leaders, whatever their leadership characteristics may be. Unless the confrontation strategy involves a confrontation of the group’s thoughts, reflects on the societal factors in its milieu, and holds entities and states that offer a safe haven to its members and leaders accountable; the group will stay, as will its dangers and threats on Iraq and Syria and on interests that directly impact the US, Russia, and other parties involved in that open-ended war.

The murder of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019 and Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi in 2022 were carried out in the northern Syrian province of Idlib near the Turkish border, a stronghold of al-Nusra Front, Jund al-Islam, and other violent anti-Syrian regime Political Islam groups operating under the Turkish intelligence services. All the circumstances surrounding the place of residence of both slain ISIS leaders indicate strong links between ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, which are united by ideology and the common objective of fighting whom they perceive to be enemies of Islam and the Caliphate. They also share the objective of territorial and political consolidation to the extent possible.

It is hard to believe that the Turkish intelligence was unaware that the two ISIS leaders lived less than 20 kilometers away from its borders, in an area stuffed with intelligence agents and affiliates from al-Nusra Front and other groups.

Dismantling the circumstances of al-Qurashi’s murder indicates that the war with ISIS still requires many efforts and comprehensive security, ideological, political, and societal strategies. It is a protracted war, and killing one or more leaders does not necessarily mean the final battle is near.

The bulk of the needed efforts must be shouldered by the Iraqi government, which is the most affected by the group’s presence and freedom to move inside Iraq and Baghdad even. Two chief prerequisites can help contain the dangers of ISIS on the medium-term: addressing the grievances of the Sunni community in the provinces where the group’s remnants are present, and considering the demands of those Iraqis infuriated by the former governments’ negligence of their regions and failure to provide equality and the basic requirements of a decent life. This should be coupled with a firm ideological confrontation of all the group’s ideas and principles that seek to destroy people’s lives.

As for Syria, where vast areas no longer fall under the Syrian government’s control, the biggest role in the confrontation falls on the shoulders of the Kurdish autonomous administration, in cooperation with the United States and the Global Coalition. Meanwhile, the Syrian government seems satisfied with what it has achieved in the area that President Bashar al-Assad calls “useful Syria.” The outcome: a geographical area where the organization and its remnants enjoy freedom of movement, and incomplete comprehensive confrontation efforts that are likely to remain suspended until Syria regains its unity and sovereignty.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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