A coalition of forces has surrounded the northern city of Mosul in Iraq and is working to push ISIS out of its base in the country, effectively spelling an end to the militant group’s reign in Iraq. Meanwhile in Libya, ISIS’ presence is nearing the brink as fighters flee their base in Sirte.
As ISIS’ control over land erodes, many wonder what will become of the self-proclaimed caliphate declared by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2014. ISIS would effectively be defeated in the Middle East, with only Raqqa in Syria left as a stronghold and an impending operation set to expel the group from their remaining bastion.
“They’re done territorially,” Dr. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on how violent non-state actors are transforming the world and how states react, told ThinkProgress. “Everything else will be a mop up operation in terms of denying them control of territory. The claim of the caliphate at that point is shattered.”
Assuming that coalition forces’ progress in the fight against ISIS in Mosul continues, ISIS’ short spell at state-building will soon be over. But the group could still act as a thorn in the side of countries in the Middle East and beyond as an insurgent group.
“The big obstacle, which is not insurmountable, is, as Mao says, to win over the population,” Gartenstein-Ross said. But Gartenstein-Ross said ISIS has not endeared themselves to the local populace, which doesn’t come as a surprise as the group’s brutal rule often alienated locals who cheered their expulsion from their towns.
There’s also the prospect that ISIS could turn their focus to another region. After the group started suffering losses in Iraq over the last year, foreign recruits turned their focus to Libya, and ISIS’ presence rapidly grew in the country due to the political vacuum. But thanks to an ongoing offensive, ISIS now has a shrinking grip over Libya, and other regions could face backlash from ISIS militants.
“They’re done territorially… The claim of the caliphate at that point is shattered.”
Tunisia is one of the most likely places the group will turn to next. A large number of Tunisian citizens have joined ISIS , and as the group falters in Libya, many could return and threaten stability back home. ISIS has also made limited inroads in places like Somalia, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan, though there’s a low likelihood that those countries would experience a similar insurgency to the ones in Libya, Syria, and Iraq.
“I wouldn’t write it off but the odds are against some of those becoming strong bases,” Gartenstein-Ross said, noting that Libya and Syria were engulfed in civil war when ISIS made its presence felt.
Without a sketched out base, ISIS will have to reorganize internally. The networks that launched attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Istanbul were huge, and without territory to plan attacks, they will have to focus on a less centralized model.
“There will be a changing model,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “I think we’ll see a hybrid model emerge that carries out decentralized attacks and at the same time [focuses on] territory.”
A less centralized model also fits into a contingency plan recently reported on by Hassan Hassan, a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
“If the Islamic State loses Mosul, the group has a clearly articulated contingency plan, a strategy it has frequently broadcast on multiple platforms for the past five months: inhiyaz, or temporary retreat, into the desert,” Hassan wrote. Inhiyaz was mentioned by Amaq, an ISIS news agency, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, an official ISIS spokesman killed in late August, and Al-Naba and was a tactic used by ISIS precursor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), between 2007 and 2013.
ISIS’ demise in the Middle East will surely be cheered by all ethnic and religious groups, but many problems will remain for the governments that have to clean up the mess it left behind.
While virtually no one outside the group’s members holds any affection for ISIS as a governor, certain Sunni residents remember oppressive actions also coming from the hands of the Iraqi government. It was a big reason behind ISIS’ success in Iraq in the first place. This leaves Baghdad with a big challenge to win over Sunni Iraqis and weave the country’s sectarian strands to form a national fabric greater than sectarianism.
“Many Shias, Christians and others now believe that there is a small dose of the Islamic State — vengefulness, takfirism and hegemonic ambitions — in almost every Sunni,” Emile Hokayem, a Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote recently in the Washington Post. “And many Sunnis, having rationalized the rise of the Islamic State as essentially driven by legitimate grievances, either condemn their extreme expression or denounce the Islamic State as un-Islamic rather than question its very foundations.”
These are fundamental quarries for not just Iraq, but for the Middle East in general. Northern Syria is faced with sectarian challenges, and Kurdish militias have been pitted against Syrian rebels (some supported by anti-Kurdish Ankara) for control over land and resources.
Mosul in particular will be an apt litmus test with Sunni Arabs, Shia, Turkomans, Assyrians, Yazidis, and other Christian sects forming “the most complex human terrain in all of Iraq,” according to former U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, who led American forces in the country from 2007 to 2008. The groups currently fighting ISIS include an amalgam of troops with complex loyalties and alliances, including Iraqi government forces, Kurdish regional government forces, Turkish-backed militias, and Iranian backed Shia militias.
“Politically it’s an opportunity, a major opportunity for us to get our politics in better shape,” Lukman Faily, a former Iraqi ambassador to the United States, told NBC. “That can only happen if we keep focusing on this and Mosul is a good example, an acid test.”
If the rebuilding and governance project fails, ISIS could reemerge from the desert and launch an insurrection campaign.
“The war against the Islamic State is unwinnable without filling the political and security vacuum that now exists in too much of Iraq,” Hassan wrote. “The Islamic State’s eventual retreat from Mosul will be a much-needed victory for the country. But unless the government in Baghdad enables Iraqi Sunnis to fill that void, it will once again emerge from the desert.”