What will happen to the «Islamic state» after the loss of territories?

original-1.jpg     Start of operation to liberate Mosul is the last test of survival for radical Islamists. From the beginning of 2016 it is actually looks like the IS is going to cease existence as a pseudo-state and switch to illegal position.

            This year has become unsuccessful for IS. After the rises and victories the radicals began to precipitously lose territories. On October 17, the Iraqi leadership announced the start of an operation to liberate the country’s second largest city, Mosul. Heretofore the radicals were losing one locality after another. In January 2016 the IS failed in Ramadi. The same thing happened in Fallujah in June. The liberation of the Sindzhar by the Kurds with USA support at the end of 2015 had a strategic importance. It complicated the contacts of the Syrian part of the IS with the Iraqi one. And in March 2016 the Syrian Palmyra was liberated with the support of Moscow.

            Let’s skip the dozens of small towns that were fought off from terrorists, and more often just left by them. Militants lost control of dozens of oil facilities, plants and factories over the past year. Dozens of small towns, which were «life channel» for the radicals, were lost on the Syrian-Turkish border. Tax and oil revenue have decreased with the loss of territories. In short, just about the beginning of 2016, and perhaps even earlier, the recession began, «dowla» (State) is suffering one defeat after another.

Idea fix

            The idea of territory control and the formation of state institutions became the idea fix for the IS. This was its distinctive feature and competitive advantage in relation to other groupings. IS ideologists in their journal Dabiq talked a lot about the need of controlling the territories. In their opinion, «salafia», that is, imitation of «righteous ancestors», and the «caliphate» are impossible without this. After all, the caliphs of the past controlled the territory, which allowed them to establish rules by which the Islamic world should live. Radicals, of course, altering the life of the medieval «Arab Caliphate» in their own interests, came to the conclusion: in order to return the former greatness, it is necessary to control the lands. And today the loss of them is a fundamental blow to the essence of the organization.

            The existence of a supposedly «state» made it possible for the IS to claim the main role in the hierarchy of terrorists. «Al-Qaeda had victories (9/11), but it is unable to establish the «Islamic righteous practice”, because it doesn’t have land». This is almost a direct quote from the Dabiq journal. According to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, it is necessary to attack the «distant enemy», which the West countries are (by the way, he also meant Russia). But the Iraqi «Al-Qaeda» went the different way and began to attack the «neighbor» one. Their main target was local Muslims who do not support radical ideology, especially the Shiites.

            The loss of Mosul is a disaster for ISIS. Radicals will not leave the city without a fight. Despite all the efforts of Baghdad, the Kurds and Washington, its liberation will not be easy thing. Mosul will be taken over in any case, but this will take months of fierce city battles. This is impossible to do until the presidential elections in the USA. But so that the victory doesn’t become a Pyrrhic victory, it is necessary, on the one hand, to fill the vacuum that has been created, and on the other, to integrate Sunni society into the institutions of power.

In addition, the point of view that militants leave Mosul massively looks not quite correctly. Some Russian politicians and media argue that «a mass transfer of militants from Mosul to Syria has been organized». This supposedly was done in order to complicate life in Moscow. And, as always, the USA is behind it. Of course, this is not true. The transition of small groups shouldn’t been completely denied. This is a common phenomenon in the East. Countries-regions send their radicals to the neighbors. This is one of the Middle East mechanisms of fighting terrorism. The Jordanians send “their” «Al-Qaeda» to Syria, which in turn goes to Iraq and further in a circle.

But today the transition of militants from Mosul to Syria is not massive. And even more so, none state in the world, especially non-regional, fully controls terrorists, as conspiracy experts say. And finally, militants go from Syria to Iraq to protect Mosul, but not vice versa.

The desert will become the base

Anyway, the loss of territory is familiar to militants. During the war in Iraq, the world witnessed a phenomenon such as «Awakening». As a result of that, the population opposed Al-Qaeda and the radicals had to leave the city. The desert became the base and fortress of terrorists. There in the desert it is harder to get mobile group than in a particular city. No army wants to run after terrorists in semi-desert regions, especially when they have the support of a part of the local population.

The IS loses its competitive advantage with the loss of territories. This leads to a decrease in economic opportunities. The support base is also respectively narrowing. Defeats lead to disappointment with the idea fix. Radical Islamists are strong in asymmetrical battles, clashes in cities, the preparation of terrorist attacks, propaganda, but not in state building. Moreover, global powers will not allow them to do this for a long time.

But the question of the future of the IS isn’t idle at all. The grouping still has thousands of followers. So what will happen to the organization after the loss of territories? Whether it will survive? And what should be meant by the word «survive»? Making ISIS lose territory and leave cities means to undermine essence of the organization. But the grouping is capable of transforming, changing the mechanisms of work. After all, «dowla» is not only territory, but also ideology. Moreover, the brand has been developed and it has enough of supporters to continue the activity for a long time. In this sense, the liberation operation of Mosul is a test for radicals.

The leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was not far from the truth. He opposed the tactics of seizing and retaining large areas, and considered the announcement of the «caliphate» as premature. The right hand of bin Laden warned ISIS about imminent defeat because of Western interference. The grouping becomes a classic terrorist structure that will exist illegally and control only certain areas of Iraq and Syria, as radicals do in Pakistan, for example, but will not cease to be a pseudo-state.

Georgi Asatryan, Ph.D., orientalist. 

This article was published in Forbes.


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