What Really Matters in the Middle East

July 12, 2017 The fight against the Islamic State is far from over.

By Jacob L. Shapiro

The fight against the Islamic State appears to be going well. On July 9, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in Mosul after the city was finally retaken. The same day, the United States and Russia agreed to a cease-fire in southwestern Syria, ostensibly giving government forces and Syrian rebels a freer hand in fighting the Islamic State – not that the rebels have ever fought IS. Then on July 10, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was dead, as had been rumored a month ago.

These are welcome developments for the enemies of the Islamic State. But the fight is far from over.

A Broken City, a Hydra

Let’s take a look at each of these developments, starting with the liberation of Mosul. It took nearly nine months to dislodge IS from the city despite the fact that Iraqi security forces significantly outnumbered IS forces and were backed by the United States. (By comparison, it took IS only two weeks to take Mosul.) The difficulties of urban warfare surely account for the length of the battle of Mosul, but only up to a point. The Islamic State simply could not have lasted as long as it did without a fair amount of local support. Losing Mosul is ultimately a symbolic but tolerable defeat.

The city Iraq has reclaimed is broken. For the first time in history, a Shiite military force has taken over a majority Sunni city. Its population doesn’t trust the central government any more than it trusts the Iran-backed Shiite militias operating immediately west of the city. And so Iraq’s fundamental problems are unresolved. The Sunnis hate the Shiites, the Shiites hate the Sunnis, and Iraqi Kurds are trying to break away. Iraq’s sectarian conflict will press on, and jihadists will exploit the conflict as they see fit.

Then there are the practical military considerations. So bloodied were Iraqi security forces in the battle of Mosul that they will be in no rush to resume the fight in other IS-controlled areas such as those in Anbar province. The United States will also have to adjust its strategy if it wants to avoid repeating the mistakes that led to the creation of the Islamic State in the first place. As the U.S. commander of the operation against IS said, the government will have to do something “pretty significantly different” to keep that from happening.

An Iraqi federal police officer celebrates July 8 after the government in Baghdad retook Mosul from the Islamic State. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Russia and the United States appear to have set aside their differences and have agreed to a cease-fire deal in southwestern Syria. The truth is that Moscow and Washington have been quietly cooperating in Syria for some time. The coordinated offensives of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian army against IS forces a few weeks ago are a testament to their cooperation – a far more important one than a doomed-to-fail cease-fire. In fact, the agreement is already starting to fray. Al-Masdar news reported Syrian army advances in the countryside near Sweida and Damascus the day after the cease-fire was announced, and yesterday the Free Syrian Army claimed it had shot down a Syrian jet and had retaken land from government forces. Whether or not this is true doesn’t matter; what matters is that they are still fighting.

The death of al-Baghdadi is also less encouraging than it first appears. It’s certainly possible that al-Baghdadi was killed in a Russian airstrike, as the initial reports claimed. It is also irrelevant. Groups like the Islamic State are more hydra than snake: Cutting off the head doesn’t kill the body, it just creates new heads. The United States forced Osama bin Laden into hiding before it killed him in Pakistan, and yet al-Qaida was largely unaffected by his absence. There’s no reason to think this will be any different.

That’s because he was playing the long game. Knowing he would probably be a martyr, al-Baghdadi almost certainly empowered lieutenants capable of carrying on after his death. The Islamic State boasts a pretty sophisticated bureaucracy, replete with tax collection, policing activities, and even a public health system. These institutions are no doubt buckling under the pressure of coalition attacks, but it’s difficult to ignore how organized IS has been and how effectively it governed a large territory in Syria and Iraq – all while fighting a multi-front war against stronger enemies. Many more IS leaders will die before the fight is truly over.

The Inevitable

All of this, of course, raises an obvious question: If recent developments are not so important, what is? Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the Islamic State is not yet defeated. It still holds defensible territory stretching from Deir el-Zour to Abu Kamal. It still conducts terrorist attacks meant to antagonize sectarian groups and to produce new recruits. It still tries to infiltrate surrounding countries, most notably Jordan and Saudi Arabia. (Just yesterday, Jordan thwarted an attempt to cross its border illegally.) And it still has members who, once militarily “defeated,” can blend in to society undetected.

It’s also important to remember that, as the Islamic State weakens, the regional ethnic and sectarian conflict will worsen. Anbar province – in which Shiite militias, backed by Iran, are operating in Sunni-majority territory – is a disaster in the making. Syria is still a mostly Sunni Arab country that is governed by Alawites, who practice an offshoot version of Shiite Islam. They are backed by Hezbollah and Iran, which want Bashar Assad to stay in power. Saudi Arabia, a regional Sunni power, wants Assad to be overthrown, as does Turkey. All these groups set aside their differences temporarily to fight a common enemy. Once the common enemy is removed, they will simply be able to fight each other more directly than they once could.

Of course, no one has yet invaded what remains of IS territory, and the ethnic conflict in Iraq and Syria is not as bad as it will surely get. But these developments are inevitable in the fight against the Islamic State. And when dealing with the inevitable, the sexier cease-fires and random deaths don’t matter as much as the mundane. Things like the status of Saudi Arabia’s political economy, the viability of Jordan’s border guards, and the relationships between Shiite militias and Sunni citizens are what really matter.

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