Appearing in Australian Financial Review, Defence feature, 29 November 2017
What next now IS is crumbling
With Islamic State on the verge of losing all its territory in Iraq and Syria the thinking has turned to what might happen next, and what the implications are for the region and the West.
“At the moment, IS has lost everything it controlled in Iraq except for some outlying pockets,” says Dr Rodger Shanahan, a Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute. “The situation in Syria is more complicated but it is really only a question of time until IS loses its territory there as well. There have been reports of the death of the IS leader and self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi although we probably should believe that only when there is clear proof. But even if he is still alive, he no longer has much to lead.”
The loss of territory also means the loss of the financial resources that had allowed IS to support affiliates around the world. It also robs IS of the ‘victory narrative’ that had been central to its propaganda message. Without financial and technological resources, its social media presence has diminished, and IS is likely to find itself competing for attention with other radical voices on the Net.
Some observers have suggested that IS might move to one of its ‘provinces’ and re-establish its operations there. Shanahan is doubtful.
“Basically, its leaders and key figures were Iraqi, and they have no desire to go to the backblocks of Nigeria or Pakistan,” he says. “For Arab jihadists the Arabs are the people to whom God’s last revelation was given and who spread the world of Islam. To them, the Arab world is the centre of the struggle. The remaining leaders of IS are likely to try and stay in Iraq, going underground and seeking shelter from sympathetic tribes in remote areas. They are likely to believe they can rebuild and regenerate.”
Shanahan believes that regeneration of IS or a similar jihadist group in Iraq is possible if the conditions that gave rise to the success of IS remain. He nominates education and employment opportunities as areas that the Iraqi government should focus on after the territorial defeat of IS.
“There is at least an awareness in sections of the Iraqi government that development and modernisation is needed, and not just in the big cities,” Shanahan says. “The Americans, who are likely to maintain a presence in the area after IS is gone, are also saying this to the Iraqis. Hopefully we will eventually see a truly national institution emerge in the form of the Iraqi military, rather than something which operates more like a blunt instrument for whatever group happens to be in office. As a result of the struggle to defeat IS we are seeing some green shoots of a national Iraqi identity emerge.”
Another hopeful sign is that Saudi Arabia has begun to re-engage with Iraq. This might be partly to build a coalition against Iran but also because the Iraqi government, having defeated an entrenched and dangerous enemy, has gained some prestige in the region.
The situation in Syria is more difficult than that of Iraq, with more players and conflicting agendas. Nevertheless, it appears that IS in that country will soon lose its last strongholds.
“Bashir Assad will end up feeling satisfied with the outcome,” says Shanahan. “We can only hope that when the dust settles he will decide that there has been enough killing, rather than deciding to conduct a purge. Yes, he owes a lot to the Russians, but there are long connections between Russia and Syria. The Russians made the right choice, in a strategic sense. There was a point where Assad was seriously wobbling, and the Russians had to decide between cutting him loose or doubling down. They chose the latter, and it paid off. In fact, Russia and Syria recently signed an extension of their lease on their naval facility at Tartus and a lease agreement for their Hmeymim airbase in Latakia. So the Russians can also see themselves as winners.
“The downside for Assad is that Iran has increased its influence in Syria but it was the price he had to pay in order to maintain his grip on power.”
Outside the Middle East, there is likely to be a reduction in terrorist attacks, as Islamic State’s profile reduces and its social media presence shrinks. However, there is the problem that radicals who had gone to Islamic State from Western countries are now returning, with enough training to make them dangerous. And there are jihadists in the West who, although never having been to Islamic State territory, are still enthralled by the ideology.
“I doubt that they would have changed their anti-Western thinking at all,” Shanahan says. “They define themselves as standing up for the oppressed against their oppressors. If anything, the loss of IS territory would have strengthened rather than weakened that narrative. The issue will be whether they will have the capability to mount anything more than lone-wolf or non-complex small group attacks. Certainly, the security services cannot afford to relax, but without IS resources and organisation it is hard to see jihadists conducting large, complex operations.”