The last of the ISIS stronghold in /Syria and along the Syrian border with Iraq have fallen. The Caliphate is no more, but ISIS is not dead. Also the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are not over. In fact they may be just beginning.
With the fall of Raqqa, the titular capitol of the caliphate the ISIS dream of a caliphate stretching across the middle-east is ended, for now. ISIS can no longer sell oil and women. It can no longer collect taxes and impress youths into their militias. It no longer controls any major geographic areas in the middle-east. But the conditions that allowed ISIS to rise so quickly are still very much present. The Sunnis and the Shias are still antagonistic towards each other. The Kurds don’t trust either group or the Turks cannot stand the new US supported Kurdish militias that have emerged victorious in their efforts. The Free Syrians have captured areas from ISIS that the Syrians are going to want to have control of again. The Russians, Iran and Hezbollah are still supporting Syria. Iran, the US allies and others are still supporting Iraq. The US and the Turks are still supporting the Free Syrians.
Additionally, ISIS has now established roots in Afghanistan, Africa, and the Philippines to name a few places. Each of these ISIS affiliates will continue to wreak havoc where and when they can. The key for ISIS and its affiliates is to reestablish a source of resources now that its population and economic base is gone. It must continue to recruit from the Islamic refugees and victims of the violence in Syria and Iraq who have been scattered all over the globe. Continued recruitment is key because over time the existing followers will be found and dealt with. Rooting out the cells in both Syria and Iraq and the rest of the world will be a very difficult struggle but over time attrition of the existing ISIS follower will occur and ISIS will wither without recruits. It also needs resources. The need for resources suggests crimes of violence—kidnappings, bank robberies, drugs, human trafficking, etc.
Thus though the ground war is won against ISIS the celebration will be brief and meaningless unless the root distrust and poverty are not dealt with. This will be difficult because the cities like Mosul and Raqqa suffered severe damage. Homes must be rebuilt. Businesses must be reestablished. Social conflict must be minimized. A different type of war is thus necessary—one to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS, probably in some other name.
Superimpose these conditions with the multi-sided power seekers who believe they have won their pieces of the geographic pie. The two key non-governmental players here are the Kurds and the Free Syrians. The Kurds want their independence from Iraq and Iran (and Turkey?). The Free Syrians want to over throw Assad and claim all of Syria. This probably means renewed combat but by a different set of players. How will the outsiders react? Will the Russians and withdraw their support for Assad? Will the US withdraw its support from the Kurds and the Free Syrians? How will Iran try and gain control of Iraq in its own efforts to create a caliphate. These are all unanswered questions that must be answered quickly.
There have been four significant phases of Islamist militancy over the past 50 years. The first two—growing threat and threat local efforts occurred in the late 1970s through the 90s. These were in large part ignored until they threatened western interests. The third and the have combined great violence in Muslim-majority countries with a series of spectacular attacks in the west.
All four have followed a similar path– a slow, mostly unnoticed period of growth, a spectacular event or series of events that brought the new threat to western public attention, a phase of brutal conflict and sever casualties and then retreat to fight another day. We are now entering the fourth phase
However, a victory is a victory, and there are so few reasons for cheer these days. So nations should briefly celebrate the defeat of the Islamic State and its hateful so-called caliphate while keeping a watchful lookout for the next fight, which will be different but the same.