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October 25, 2016
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Will the fall of Mosul defeat IS?

Opinion

October 25, 2016

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In the past few months, the Islamic State (IS) has suffered significant territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. Most recently, the Turkish forces retook the Syrian town of Dabiq from the IS. Similarly, in Iraq after retaking the Sunni-majority Anbar province from the IS in July, the Iraqi forces have launched the much-touted operation in Mosul. Currently, Mosul is the last stronghold of the IS in Iraq; and Aleppo and Raqqa in Syria.

In the context of the Mosul operation, three important questions beg answers. First, will the loss of territory in Mosul and similar territorial setbacks in Syria defeat the IS? Second, what military strategy will the anti-IS coalition – comprising the Iraqi military and police, Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), the US advisers and the Kurdish Peshmergas – adopt against the IS – counter-terrorism (CT) or counter-insurgency (COIN)? Third, if the IS implodes, has the international community deliberated and worked out a strategy to deal with the aftermath of such a development?

The fall of Mosul to the anti-IS coalition which outnumbers the 4,000-5,000 IS fighters by 35,000-40,000 is a foregone conclusion. However, the manner in which Mosul is taken and treated post-operation is as important as retaking it from the IS in the first place.

Certainly, the loss of territory will compel the IS to beat a tactical retreat. That would be a huge propaganda setback to its slogan of Baqiya Wa Tamaddad (ever remaining and expanding) and may trigger defections and undermine the appeal of the so-called caliphate. However, this is not the first time that the group – then known as the Islamic State in Iraq – is facing such a situation. In 2006, when the then leader of the terror group, Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi, was killed, it suffered huge setbacks. The group went underground and re-emerged in 2010 by defeating the Sahwa Movement, the Sunni tribal uprisings against the group. The latter exploited the Arab uprisings in 2011, and expanded into Syria to eventually become the IS in June 2014.

Therefore, conflating the loss of territory with the defeat of the IS will be premature and over-simplistic. The IS knows the art of reinventing itself and coming back from the most challenging situations. In all these restive years, the IS has honed the skills of hybrid warfare. Across the military spectrum – depending on the situation and circumstances – it has fought like a quasi-conventional-military, guerrilla force, and a terrorist group.

There are four core components of IS structure. First, the top leadership of the terror group, which is alive but on the run. Second, IS control over vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. Third, the global appeal of the so-called caliphate as an ideology. The IS still holds monopoly over modern terrorist iconography as the trendsetter of global jihadism. The attraction of the IS’ jihadist brand among its supporters, sympathisers, and fighters is still very strong.

Finally, the narrative of the continued alienation of the Iraqi and Syrian Sunni populations against their Shia regimes which provides the IS with the pretext to exploit the situation in its favour. In July when the Shia PMUs retook Anbar – a Sunni majority area of Iraq – from the IS they unleashed massive atrocities against the local Sunni population. Such reckless acts of brutality not only alienated the Sunnis but also strengthened the IS’ extremist narrative that the terror group is the sole protector of the Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis political and socio-economic rights.

In sum, the control of territory is an important, but not the only, component of the IS. Only depriving the terror group of the territory will not defeat it as long as the other factors are not neutralised, or judiciously addressed.

From the strategy point of view, it is important to consider what strategy the anti-IS coalition will use in Mosul: CT or COIN? Notwithstanding several similarities, the two strategies are qualitatively different in their focus, approach, and execution. CT is enemy-centric and relies on timely and accurate intelligence inputs. If the intelligence is weak or poor then the coalition forces will be chasing shadows of the enemy among the local population. Rather than fighting pitched battles with the coalition forces, the IS fighters will melt away in the population making their detection quite difficult.

On the contrary, COIN is population-centric and aims to win the hearts and minds of the local population. Does the coalition have enough resources, patience and political will to engage the population? Post the Mosul operation, it will require reconstruction of infrastructure, restoration of normalcy and redressal of the local population’s grievances.

The US and its Western allies are also toying with the naïve idea of leaving some territory for the IS to survive so the jihadists under its banner are not dispersed in different parts of the world. The purpose is to encourage or induce jihadist infighting so they kill or weaken each other. The idea is self-defeating and a recipe for more disaster: a wounded and cornered jihadist tiger is more dangerous than a living one.

Presently, the IS has over 30,000 foreign fighters in its ranks from Europe, Central Asia, Africa, South Asia, Middle East, and Caucus. If the IS implodes, will these jihadists go back to their home countries or relocate to Iraq and Syria? The IS has affiliates in Egypt’s Sinai area, Libya, Algeria and in Nigeria. The terror group also has a small territorial presence in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province and in the southern Philippines Mindanao area. So, its options are wide open.

The IS and other jihadist groups which currently operate in Iraq and Syria are the by-products of civil wars, proxy battles, a governance vacuum and the Sunni-Shia schisms. As long as the US and Russia, internationally, Saudi Arabia and Iran, regionally, the Iraqi-Syrian regimes and the local Sunni populations, locally, do not sort out the geo-political, geo-sectarian and political differences, the IS will find enough vacuum to re-emerge from the ashes like a phoenix.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Email: isa[email protected]

 

 

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