While some politicians jumped to call ISIS an existential threat, as they had done with Al Qaeda, what they are is a criminal organization wrapped in a cult of death, rape, destruction, and robbery. What they are not is an effective state capable of holding their territory long-term and we’re now seeing the end of their ability to hold the places they overran, including their would-be capital of Raqqa and the place where Ibrahim al-Badri (aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) declared himself Caliph Ibrahim. The mosque where he gave that sermon, or what’s left of it, is now back in the hands of the Iraqi army.
ISIS had an effective strategy for seizing control and establishing the outlines of a working state. After all, their leaders were mostly Saddam’s senior officers, who had been thrown out of their jobs when the US decided in 2003 to de-Ba’ath-ify the Iraqi military. It was possibly the greatest blunder in that whole blunder of a war and left a lot of men unemployed, still armed, and deeply resentful. It’s no wonder many of them helped form ISIS.
Some of ISIS’s playbook was remarkably advanced. They would quickly get the electricity back on, fix roads, get the basics of life running again. Then, of course, they’d start imposing their bizarre rules about women’s clothes, men’s beards, and all the rest. But while ISIS could come into a town and establish order where there had been chaos, even winning some initial welcome from the war-weary locals, they couldn’t hold onto hearts and minds and, more practically, they couldn’t extract as much in taxes and bribes as they expected.
When the price of oil dropped in half, the oilfields they had stolen were not as lucrative. The Economist, Der Spiegel, and others tracked ISIS’s economic difficulties well, even as most US outlets focused on explosions and fear. They pointed out that, while ISIS had those slick recruitment videos and better game on social media than the US government, they stopped being able to pay their fighters on time.
I guess even death cults bent on domination and destruction need to have a sustainable business model. Now, in a slow, agonizing, house-to-house battle, Mosul is being recaptured and so is Raqqa. And what then? Meet the new war, same as the old war, more or less.
The essential problem with armed overthrows is that they rarely win the peace. Victory in the battlefield doesn’t create sustainable institutions for a civil society. Pop quiz: when did World War 2 end? The fighting may have stopped in 1945 but the real answer is somewhere in 1947-8, when the Marshall Plan and the Occupation in Japan helped restore normalcy and, more important, gave the Japanese and Germans back control of their own countries instead of extracting spoils of war from them. That’s why they are such strong allies today. That’s why Iraq is not.
Ishaan Tharoor’s analysis of what’s next in Syria seems spot on:
In Washington, civilian and military planners are already preparing for the next stage of the war in Syria. It looks, as my colleague Karen DeYoung wrote, to be “a complex fight that will bring them into direct conflict with Syrian government and Iranian forces contesting control of a vast desert stretch in the eastern part of the country.”
Clashes have already taken place, with the U.S. shooting down drones used by Iranian-backed militias. The risk of an escalating American military commitment in Syria, potentially locked in conflict with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — something the Obama administration tried to avoid — now seems more of a reality under President Trump.
Still, there appears to be a divide between the White House and officials in the Pentagon, the latter eager to avoid getting sucked into the Syrian war and the prospect of removing Assad. The widespread chaos and uncertainty is its own kind of valediction for the Islamic State.
“The fact is that, although ISIS’s audacious ultraviolence ultimately set the scene for its material undoing, it also meant that it could work towards creating the world it wanted to inhabit — a polarized, turbulent place that accommodated the jihadist ideology uncannily well,” wrote Charlie Winter of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization in London.
In this current environment, the root causes that led to the emergence of the Islamic State — political turmoil, sectarian tensions and shoddy governance — won’t be getting addressed any time soon.