This week’s march, entitled ‘Unite the Right’, by a collection of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other right-wing extremists in Charlottesville, Virginia, has thrown the United States into turmoil. Continue reading
The Islamic State (ISIS) is on the back foot after its defeat in the Iraqi city of Mosul and smaller losses in Syria, but questions remain over eradicating the group’s leadership.
There have been persistent rumours that ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed. These, however, have not been confirmed and should be treated sceptically.
What is certain is that ISIS’s leadership structure has been declining following the death of leading figures who have not been replaced due to a sustained campaign of US-led air strikes.
The anti-ISIS military campaign has led to the decline in ISIS propaganda, which can be measured qualitatively. Charlie Winter, an academic who follows ISIS’s output, tweeted that ‘[ISIS] media noticeably dropped off in early June’. He attributed the fall to international coalition and Iraqi government operations ‘having [a] serious impact on its ability to get propaganda from A to B.’
Nevertheless, ISIS has demonstrated that it is resourceful and has a history of coping with military defeats. The line of succession of Baghdadi is unclear and although his death may mean the end of the self-proclaimed caliphate, it does not spell the end of ISIS in operational terms.
As al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS survived long periods of mounting insurgent campaigns in the very territory to which it is soon expected to be reduced. Its leaders have been killed before and it has endured.
Analysts said that ISIS militants have retreated to what the group calls Wilayat al-Furat (Euphrates province), which covers several Iraqi and Syrian towns. Hassan Hassan, an analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said Baghdadi was there.
Kyle Orton, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society’s Centre for the Response to Radicalisation and Terrorism, said: ‘Wilayat al-Furat is and will be the final redoubt of the Islamic State, a base in difficult terrain that it will be difficult for any outside force to clear [ISIS fighters] from’.
He explained that ‘It was in this zone, on the Iraqi side of the border, that [their predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq] rode out defeat and from which they spread back across Iraq in 2008’.
Orton said that, in addition to Iraqi territory, ISIS has ‘the Syrian side of the border, too, and a much more hospitable political and military environment’. The survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, a cause of great instability and internecine hatred, is a boon to ISIS, both now and in the future, argued Orton.
As well as these ungoverned spaces, ISIS can count on favourable conditions in other parts of Iraq and Syria. ISIS appears to have planned for its defeat in Mosul for months. Defending those cities was merely one stage of a multiphase plan.
Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer and fellow at the Hudson Institute, said that in Iraq ‘ISIS cells will continue to operate in cities where Iraqi Shia militias and Iraqi Security Forces have relaxed their security postures’.
In the same way, forces fighting ISIS must be prepared to operate a similarly staged strategy. ‘Phase I: Take away territory. Phase II: Fight ISIS as it moves to the al-Qaeda model’, Pregent said. The third phase, he said, may include a ‘security backslide in liberated areas’.
Pregent noted that the future of ISIS rested on Sunni communities, many of which were distrustful of what they perceived to be Shia domination of Iraq’s government.
There was a real fear that, among government circles and worldwide, ‘there is no interest in protecting the population, let alone empowering the Sunni population to fight back against the next iteration of ISIS’, said Pregent.
Iraqi Sunnis are both the basis of ISIS’s support and the most important opponents of its worldview. They have fought back against its predecessor organisations but need support – moral and military – to do so.
Pregent said the manner in which cities have been captured from ISIS would provide propaganda material for a wide range of rejectionist groups in opposition to the Iraqi government.
Conditions exist in both Iraq and Syria for the survival ISIS, which can be expected to exploit political weakness and sectarian division and make use of ungoverned space in the region. This presents numerous options for the group, even after the certain loss of major urban areas. Some form of ISIS will exist for years.
Sustaining ISIS’s defeat and altering the conditions that would allow it to grow once more remain a challenge that faces policymakers and leaders, in Iraq, Syria and across the world.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.
Soviet architecture and ‘socialist realism’ more generally have a poor reputation. These movements and their products are disdained by many, and deprecated in artistic terms. But each, despite their associations with totalitarianism and mass murder, can instead be seen as testament to the power of beauty, even in its monumental form. And all of this can be true despite the designs and intentions of the less than pleasant people who held political power in the Soviet Union. Continue reading
In Syria at the moment, nothing is as simple as it initially seems. There are always complicating factors, overlooked actors and unforeseen consequences with which to contend. Especially when considering the propaganda output of the Assad regime, it is best to treat everything said with a great degree of caution. This is especially true when considering the sort of stories the regime may promote in order to capture the world’s attention or otherwise appeal to western perspectives. Continue reading
Charles Lister’s book The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, contains many calculated uses of brutality by both the Assad regime and other actors, most notably ISIS and other Salafi-jihadist organisations such as the Nusra Front. What is surprising is not the nature of the violence itself – which is to be expected in a civil war of this nature – but rather the fact of its careful cultivation. Continue reading
Review – The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War by Margaret MacMillan
Amid a rash of volumes attempting to detail and explain the origins of the First World War, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace stand out. Both represent holistic, almost global attempts to analyse the various causes of the war; and both contain very thorough and very acute investigations into the character of the time before the continental conflagration broke out. MacMillan assessed European society before the war which nearly brought about its collapse, whereas Clark focuses on an analysis which takes in nation-states, alliances, diplomacy and the ever-present prospect of force (but these forces were not impersonal; as will be elucidated, much of European diplomacy in those days was built and conducted on the basis of personality and thoroughly personal reactions). Continue reading
RT, formerly Russia Today, the state-funded broadcasting arm of that expansionist European nation, has recently launched a British subsidiary. If the thought of Putin’s own propaganda operation descending upon our media landscape does not give you a small frisson of trepidation, you’re probably part of its target demographic. Continue reading