Revival of the Islamic State Caliphate: Soon or even sooner?
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The post-ISIS period in Syria has never meant the beginning of a post-conflict stage. On the Syrian theatre, there are still problems related to the need for political transformation and return of the refugees, as well as overthrowing separate ISIS and former Jabhat al-Nusrah terrorist entities.
ISIS enclaves in the densely populated western areas of the country have been destroyed on a permanent basis with the districts of al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk recently cleared from ISIS terrorists. In this way, the Syrian government has managed to take control of the capital, including its suburbs, for the first time after the war began in 2011-2012. ISIS remnants are still present in the southern provinces of Quneitra, represented by Jaysh Khalid Ibn al Waleed terrorist grouping, most likely to share the same destiny, despite its close location to the border with Israel.
Actually, neither the Syrian army, supported by Russia, nor the pro-American Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have managed to establish complete control over the territory near the Syria-Iraq border. Moreover, the SDF includes military groups of the Kurdish YPG self-defense forces, infiltrated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), recognized as a terrorist organization in Turkey. During the Turkish military operation in Afrin, the US military in Syria had to hold relocation of the forces they support to the south of the Euphrates, because mainly Kurdish SDF military groups began to abandon their positions and head for their westernmost canton to defend it.
However, it all ended in the return of the YPG self-defense forces to the Kobane and Jazira cantons. No doubt, those circumstances encouraged the US military from CENTCOM, who continue to train some sort of a Arab-Kurdish army, as well as to maintain infrastructural facilities in the east of Syria (which is an obvious violation of international law, just like the rest of the US activities in that country). None of that points to a possible US withdrawal from Syria, previously announced by President Trump. It more likely means quite the opposite: preserving the US military bases, as well as the further reinforcement of the US-supported forces in the region.
Another issue is the fact that former ISIS militants surrender to the SDF – and Americans are very much likely to be aware of that. They are not put on trial (or the process is limited), and guaranteed security in exchange for nonresistance to the US and Kurdish arrangements. Yet, this approach may include serious risks. In the future, there can be strengthening of subversive activities and terrorist attacks on the part of the “rescued” militants. In addition, the Kurdish rule is commonly not accepted by the mainly Arab tribes. There were cases of detention of citizens by the SDF forces, as well as mass protests against the inequities of the Kurdish authority among the Arab population.
Actually, ISIS has not existed as an organization able to conduct full-scale military operations for quite a long period. It has been experiencing funding issues, because the oil deposits that used to bring income are now working for the Kurds and the Americans. However, the terrorist command structure dated back to the times of the US occupation of Iraq (back then, al-Qaeda in Iraq) has shown ability in surviving and adapting to changes even before the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham in 2014.
The announcement of the Caliphate and emergence of “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (who seems to be existing regardless of time and space) brought minor changes in the roles of the group leaders. Even despite the elimination of the principal ISIS leaders, the terrorists always managed to keep some degree of controllability and continue their activities. It happened, for instance, in 2005, after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader considered one of the fathers of the ISIS ideology, was killed. At this point, institutional continuity with a certain ideologist background still can be seen.
Although ISIS has been seriously weakened and lost control over territories and resources, it retains the ability to attack. The desert terrain, along with the extensive system of tunnels, which the terrorists have been developing for years, help the remaining militants hole up near the Syria-Iraq border and conduct attacks on both governmental forces and the SDF Kurds. Suicide attacks against the Syrian Arab Army continue, resulting in deaths of Syrian soldiers and their allies.
Besides, the problem of terrorist sleeper cells on the liberated territories remains in place (it is the job of the Syrian special forces to expose them, but they often go too far, turning the locals against the Syrian government). Also, there are still terrorist groups of Russian-speaking militants in Syria. They need to be the target for Russian Aerospace Forces and security services, irrespective of their connections with specific political quarters of the countries of the region, and the goals pursued by their allies. Together with it, much effort should be made to establish political dialogue, as well as to approve provisional constitution and to call a conference on the redevelopment of Syria, inviting China, India and a number of particular EU and Persian Gulf countries to participate.
As ISIS is being weakened in Syria, the threat of its strengthening has grown in other conflict regions of the world. ISIS cells firmly consolidated in Libya, Yemen, Sinai and Afghanistan as early as in 2014-2015. That experience now serves as the starting point for further development and implementation of cell structure within the organization. Al-Qaeda, another terrorist group, forced back by the IS, has improved in its strength again. Compared to ISIS, the ideological concept of al-Qaeda is far less marginal, thus being more adapted to underground activities.
Nevertheless, Russia is much more concerned about the ISIS presence in Afghanistan: over the past two years Russian security services have been reporting the growing influence of ISIS in that country. That way, it is necessary to continue fighting terrorism both in Syria and on the territories where terrorists are most likely to be sent from to Russia (Afghanistan and the Caucasus).
Such arrangements may involve close collaboration with the government structures of the states concerned (Turkey, Iran, the countries of South Caucasus and Central Asia), including CSTO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Yet, the roots of the problem remain. Preserving the same political system, as well as the state of things without foreign participation in redevelopment of the political and economic paradigm of the Syrian political elite may lead to more frequent terrorist attacks and make the situation critically worse, put at risk to run out of control.