War against ISIS: Does the Battlefield Success Alone Count?

While the intervening powers have palpably shown enough resolve in removing despotic regimes like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam of Iraq or in keeping Assad Regime in Syria, they failed to provide any stable alternatives which could bring about normalcy and political and social stability.

[Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra]

The United States-led coalition forces are afoot with the last phase of fight against the remnants of the ISIS in a bid to wind up a four-year war against the group in Syria; thanks to the Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) ground offensives supported by US airstrikes in the town of Hajin. Hajin is a desert terrain along the Euphrates River’s east bank and an area claimed to be the last retreat for the group.

However, some US officials have acknowledged in private that ISIS is active in other areas too, including the south of the Euphrates River and near the city of Palmyra. These areas are under the control of the Assad Regime and out of the effective-reach of the US-led coalition troops.

Even though the US-led forces may have liquidated ISIS in the urban strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa, some US intelligence reports – which remained ambivalent as to the strength and number of the group – and reports from the United Nations (UN) suggest that the group remained resilient in rural pockets and border areas [between] Iraq and Syria.

A report from a UN panel of experts noted that ISIS has up to 30,000 members roughly distributed between Syria and Iraq and its global network poses a rising threat. Reports also came up with a caveat that notwithstanding ISIS’s battlefield losses, the core will survive with support from countries such as Afghanistan, Libya, Southeast Asia and West Africa.

Even though the US President Donald Trump pledged to bring back the US troops from Syria in April 2018, he actually preferred the troops to stay in Syria till the day amidst the confusing signals related to the sway of ISIS.

Pointing to the unprecedented bouncing back capacity of the group, its emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said that the group mobilized more than 60 thousand (60,000) fighters in Iraq from more than a hundred countries to its cause after a surge in US troops’ operations in 2007 downsized the group to only about a thousand (1000) fighters.

Surge of ISIS and its ability to spring back in Iraq lie in the simmering disaffection, anger, frustration and alienation of the Sunnis whose aspirations were belied with the courtesy of the US-brokered power-sharing arrangement [which allowed the Shia community to hold overwhelming political and military power over the rest of the population] — something that seems to have outright disregarded the fact that the Sunni groups too fought alongside the US troops in order to bring down pro-Saddam forces and Al Qaeda.

While countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – where the despicable acts of ISIS became major international concerns – are deeply sectarian, the intervening powers are palpably failing to provide sectarian equilibrium and stability.

In Iraq, ISIS gathered momentum due to [the widespread] Sunni disillusionment. [One major reason behind such disillusionment is that] the intervening power reserved the key ministries and posts for the people who hail from the Shia community.

Even though the Iraqi regime – supported by the US – has defeated the insurgent group on the battlefield, it failed to address the root cause of the insurgency/militancy. Hence, the reason for which ISIS grew and spread its tentacles remains undefeated. Their defeat on the battlefield has merely transformed the insurgency rather than ending it.

In Syria, the Assad Regime – supported by Russia and Iran – is poised to absorb the rebel-held and insurgent-held territories by military means. This is, however, not likely to end the chaos. Going by the Iraqi example, there is the high possibility that the anger and disillusionment of the opposition forces, i.e. the rebels, would push them to search desperately for a way out by all means — something that could even include transforming their ‘negative feelings and energies’ towards the Iraqi and Iranian regimes into ‘favors and supports’ for insurgent groups like ISIS.

The serious fights, and battlefield failures, in Iraq and Syria have pushed ISIS to look for other countries that are ridden with sectarian conflicts and grievances against intervening power. Afghanistan appeared being most suitable on these counts.

ISIS spread into the law-less areas of Afghanistan reportedly following the death of Mullah Omar, the leader of, and stabilizing force within, the Taliban. Since then, the group has been able to strengthen its presence in Af-Pak border areas and spread its presence and influence into other areas with the passage of time.

Several news reports maintained that the ranks of ISIS continued to bloat with foreign fighters escaping from Syria and Iraq. However, the US-led forces – quite in tune with their success stories against the group in Iraq and Syria – have underplayed the threat posed by ISIS and maintained that the influence of ISIS in Afghanistan was limited to a few provinces, including Nangarhar and Kunar in eastern Afghanistan and Jowzjan in the north. According to the US-led forces, the group consisted of only local defectors from other militant groups and the number varied from 1500 to 2000.

Despite US-led forces’ attempts at downplaying ISIS-threat in Afghanistan, the group has claimed responsibility for most of the despicable and horrendous terrorist attacks in addition to the more frequent – but less highlighted – attacks on the Afghan soil.

While the intervening powers have palpably shown enough resolve in removing despotic regimes like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam of Iraq or in keeping Assad Regime in Syria, they failed to provide any stable alternatives which could bring about normalcy and political and social stability. Hence, there’s the likelihood that ISIS would pick up the pieces and get back on their feet, even though many battles have been won against the group.

Author Avatar | Oped Column SyndicationDr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India.

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