The expected departure of General John Allen, the U.S. envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, should not have come as a surprise following the growth of ISIS in both landmass and recruitment over the last year. If anything, Allen’s resignation, expected this fall, pinpoints to a frustrated strategy, and a prolonged fight against ISIS beyond the Barack Obama administration and possibly his successor’s presidency.
One year and almost 7,000 airstrikes into the campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the jihadist group is neither on the cusp of defeat nor awaiting serious setbacks in its Levantine strongholds of Raqqa, Mosul and Deir al-Zour. Its trajectory, owed in large part to the political dysfunction and disintegration in Iraq and Syria, looks promising, as paths to negotiated settlements crumble in Damascus, sectarian divisions dominate Iraq and reluctance overshadows the coalition’s future moves.
Airstrikes won’t defeat ISIS
While the air campaign has hindered ISIS progress in Diyala province and helped break it in Kobane, Tal Abyad and Tikrit, the group has made substantial gains to its so-called caliphate, adding the cities of Ramadi, Palmyra and towns bordering Aleppo and Homs.
If it has taken 15 years to defeat Al-Qaeda with ground troops and full-fledged war, expecting a shorter timeframe against ISIS’ “Caliphate” is likely a fantasy.Joyce Karam
The ascendance of ISIS in Iraq and Syria offers lessons into defeating it. Its rise could not have occurred or been sustained today without the lopsided mistakes of the post-Saddam governments in Baghdad and the continued fallacies and brutality of the Assad regime across Syria. In many ways, ISIS is one byproduct of the post-Baathist structures in both Baghdad and Damascus, and expecting any form of orderly transition to their unraveling is no longer realistic.
The disintegration of the Iraqi and Syrian states as we knew them since 1958 and 1961 has brought forth militias and decentralized powers at the expense of the centralized government. Over one thousand armed groups exist in Syria today after four years of conflict, while sectarian militias and autonomous parties have more say in national security matters than the government in Baghdad. ISIS itself, as a non-state actor exploiting the grievances of and terrorizing the local population has become the loudest exhibition of the disintegration.
The late fathers of ISIS – namely Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri – drew early support for the group in 2004 and in the aftermath of the Debaathification policy that left over 100,000 civil servants unemployed and was an early sign of malignancy in the new state of Iraq. While Zarqawi’s brand was defeated in 2009, the resurgence of Al-Qaeda was only a question of time given the failure of the Nouri al-Maliki’s governments in achieving political reconciliation and ending the disenfranchisement policies against Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds. ISIS’ comeback in 2014 in Mosul was foreseen by many in Washington, given the political incompetence of Maliki and the raging conflict in bordering Syria.
Political malignancies continue
The political malignancies that gave rise to ISIS in 2003 have not changed today, minimizing the impact of the airstrikes and undercutting the military efforts. In fact, ISIS’ ability to expand its territory in Syria into Palmyra and near Aleppo while maintaining control of Raqqa and Deir al-Zour in the last year, is a testimony to the limitations of the air campaign.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS today controls more than 50 percent of Syrian territory, stretching from pockets near Aleppo into Raqqa and Deir al-Zour and bordering Homs. While the group lost Kobane in January, that was due to the presence of an equipped Kurdish force on the ground, the rejection of ISIS by the locals, and escalated use of aerial bombing for four months.
The Kobane example has so far failed to repeat in Mosul, or Ramadi, the latest Iraqi city to fall into ISIS last June, partly because of the local tribal support and a loose coalition of thugs and former regime members that the group has on the ground. Also, the failure of the Iraqi government to reconcile and recruit an anti-ISIS cross-sectarian force plays right into the hands of ISIS. Those setbacks have to do with internal Iraqi divisions and the extent of Iranian influence in post-Saddam Baghdad.
General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, has major say in the trajectory of the war against ISIS in Anbar and beyond. Iraq’s fight against ISIS is largely being led by Shia militias and Suleimani himself. That is one reason why the aftermath of the fighting is marred by sectarian agendas, looting and lawlessness – all of which have ended up backfiring and helping ISIS.
In Syria, the latest events in the form of Russian military escalation in Latakia, the death of the political process, and the expansion of Hezbollah, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, is welcome news for ISIS. It normalizes the atmosphere of fragmentation and militarization, making the group’s gains part of the new war, its realities, military and economic order. The group is staging stronger offensives near Homs and in the North against Jabhat al-Nusra, and should not be underestimated in the event of the Assad regime’s sudden collapse in Damascus.
One year into the formation of the global coalition against ISIS and as the political stalemate continues, it is likely to expect this war to stretch for over a decade. If it has taken 15 years to defeat Al-Qaeda with ground troops and full-fledged war, expecting a shorter timeframe against ISIS’ “Caliphate” is likely a fantasy.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam