Raqqa Has All But Fallen. Here’s Where ISIS Is Going Next

From Reuters:

The fighting was over but the alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias was clearing the stadium of mines and any remaining militants, said Rojda Felat, commander of the Raqqa campaign for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

A formal declaration of victory in Raqqa will soon be made, once the city has been cleared of mines and any possible Islamic State sleeper cells, said Talal Silo, the SDF spokesman.

If Mosul was the Islamic State’s Stalingrad, then Raqqa should be its Berlin.  Yet the World War II analogy is deeply limited.  Though the Islamic State is about to lose the territory of its state, its ideology, Sunni supremacism, remains potent and capable of a new phase.

Nearly every observer believes the Islamic State will return to its underground roots.  That may be a big reason why Daesh fighters are suddenly willing to flee and surrender.  While they largely fought to the death in Mosul, just days ago buses full of Daesh families and fighters fled their capital, Raqqa.  Hawija, in Iraq, fell almost immediately.  Doubtless leadership wants to scatter their forces to the few remote locations Daesh still has in Iraq and Syria.

But that’s not a good long term strategy.  It’s largest remaining town, Al-Qa’im on the Iraqi side of the Iraq-Syrian border, is exposed to air strikes and is an easy target for a ground assault by the Iraqi army.  On the Syrian side, Syrian loyalist forces and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are dividing up its former Euphrates River Valley territory.  A formal assault on Al-Qa’im is certain.

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 12.17.17 PM
The shrunken remains of the caliphate, cornered in the desert.  Source: LiveMap

So after Daesh gathers what survivors it can at Al-Qa’im, it can either suffer yet more losses fighting for an unremarkable town, or it can try to retreat its fighters along desert routes towards Jordan, into Iraq’s Anbar province, or rush towards Saudi Arabia.

After that, the question is where IS’s surviving leadership will go next.

Below is a map of the broadest way to interpret Daesh operations.  It’s of vast scope, of course: wars for world domination tend to be.

It breaks down the four different phases of the Islamic State.  There is the collapsing core territory, where IS power was greatest and is now likely to be weakest, at least in the near term.  There are the countries with formal IS “provinces” – open control of territory by the caliphate.  Then there’s the far wider map of places with demonstrated cell-based activity, even if those cells were self-directed.  Finally, there are those targets of opportunity that have yet to be struck by IS, but where attacks would benefit the group.

Phases of ISIS.png
Self-made map: open to see details.

With that broad map on display, there are likely to be three types of insurgency after the conquest of Al-Qa’im.  IS will continue to attack the West and its allies, try to rattle and destabilize local governments wherever it can, and continue to grab territory in weakened states.

1). The provocation attacks on the West.  

On the face of it, continuing to attack the militarily superior Western powers, as well as Russia, seems folly.  Yet despite the critical role both Russia and the U.S. played in destroying the caliphate’s core in Syria and Iraq, IS won’t abandon its strikes against the the Western camp and the Russians anytime soon.

They will aim to be high casualty attacks on whatever soft targets IS can find.  They might come from self-organized lone wolves or from cells.  The cells might be directed by Daesh leadership when possible, but otherwise will be local.

Such attacks keep the West involved in the Muslim world as a foil for Sunni supremacist ideology.  Once the Daesh state in Syria and Iraq falls, it will need the West to once more to accidentally destabilize other states to give it opportunity to try again.

2). The local government rattling

While Daesh wants the West to remain militarily involved, it also wants to rattle Western or non-aligned states enough to create chaos for them to exploit.  This part of the campaign must try to stir up as much violence as possible.

That’s one big reason they’ll aim for a Saudi-Iran conflict: the more pressure brought on Saudi Arabia by Iran, the better for the Islamic State. It will also target places like the Gulf states, where attacks could distract Saudi authorities.  Other targets will surely include Tunisia, whose fragile democracy is the Arab Spring’s only success, Algeria, which the Arab Spring passed by, and Egypt, which already had a raging IS insurgency in the Sinai.

In all cases, IS will seek to dry up tourist income (critical for places like Egypt and Tunisia, and increasingly vital in the Gulf), discredit security forces, and worsen whatever local divisions exist in-country (Copts vs. Muslims in Egypt, for example).  If Daesh can provoke overreactions by local governments that also harm their legitimacy, all the better.

This goes beyond just the Middle East: places like India and China are also targets.  With their sizeable Muslim minorities, IS could seek the propaganda benefit of being seen as a global movement, while also potentially complicating the ever-expanding military coalition against them by bringing India and China into the fray.

3). The territory grabbing

Finally, IS won’t completely abandon the mythology of territory.  Unlike al-Qaeda, which only governs territory incidentally, IS wants to take control of land and a build a state wherever possible. This is a critical part of both their ideology and their strategy.  Unlike al-Qaeda, where its local franchises often overlap with already-fomented wars, IS hopes to produce bases of operations that will seize control of full countries.  “Remaining and expanding” was its 2015 slogan; it will find a way to adapt its catchphrase in the post-Raqqa world.

And even as Syria and Iraq become no-go zones for IS survivors, there will be other opportunities.

Daesh will target weak and distracted states to grab otherwise overlooked territory for future operations.  On occasion, Daesh will try to succeed in taking a stable state and making it weak and distracted by terror operations; on other occasions, it will take advantage of chaos caused by Western military operations or the mistakes of local governments.

Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya already have Islamic State “provinces,” that is, cells that control open territory, while the Philippines only recently retook Marawi, the city in the south that fell under control of the IS affiliate there.  Other countries, like Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Ethiopia, where government power does not always extend completely over its declared territory, are places where Daesh fighters could try to set up bases of operations.

The future of a revolution

It’s important to remember that Daesh is a revolutionary movement, hoping to overthrow established power systems and replace them with its own.  Its military-political model can follow one of two historical revolutionary movements: the spectacular failure of the Anarchists or the more successful Communists.  The Communists were ideologues who adapted to the times, abandoning principle for power.  The Anarchists did the opposite and were destroyed.

It seems like Daesh won’t abandon principles for success.  It would, for example, need to abandon the territory-at-any-cost ideology while it regroups and waits for geopolitical space for it to open up. It would also need to find established states it could either ally with or at least be neutral towards.  Instead, it’s likely to repeat the bloody pattern of the Black Army of Ukraine, whose bad ideas eventually imploded.  In the meanwhile, Daesh will lash out until its powers are exhausted.

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