Geopolitics on the rocks

Giovanni Parigi

Da‘esh, the Mesopotamian Phoenix

Middle East and North Africa

Even if Da’esh may be bound to lose Mosul and Raqqah, it will most certainly adapt to the new reality and rise again. Unless Sunnis are granted an active role in Iraqi and Syrian state institutions, their surge will stay endemic. Why foreign fighters are destined to return home.

Da‘esh will soon lose its major stronghold of Mosul, while the offensive for Raqqah is looming. Thus, the territory under its direct control will dramatically shrink and, even if it will take time, the Caliphate shall cease to exist as a state entity. So, what will be after? Probably the best idea is provided by the myth of the Arabian Phoenix; the legend says that such a mythical bird, as the end of its life approaches, builds a pyre nest, sets it on fire and is consumed in the flames; then, its offspring arises anew from the ashes. In other terms, Da‘esh won’t be defeated for good; but, once beaten on the battlefield, it will survive simply changing and adapting to new circumstances, ready to reappear.

As a matter of fact, the Islamic State itself is the outcome of the evolution of a sequence of different jihadi, terrorist and insurgent groups, all of them defeated and reborn. Actually, even if there are differences among these groups, Da‘esh and its ancestors all share three characteristics: an extreme flexibility and resilience, the unscrupulous exploitation of violence and the Sunni population as center of gravity of their activity.

Everything started in 2004, with the establishment of an al Qa‘ida branch in Iraq (AQI), led by Abu Musab Zarqawi. After being unsuccessful in its efforts to ignite a sectarian war in Iraq, AQI was almost annihilated, being perceived by Iraqi society as an alien entity and too much violent; however, this terrorist-guerrilla group was soon able to “iraqise” himself and become the “Islamic State in Iraq”, an umbrella of several jihadi local organizations. US military surge and Sunni Awakening heavily weakened the group but, after US withdrawal in 2011, in few years the sectarian policies of the government prompted a weird Sunni alliance among jihadists, ex ba‘athists and tribal elements: it was the Da‘esh. In the summer of 2014 it rapidly gained the control of the Sunni hearthland between Iraq and Syria, and become the Islamic State. Now the Islamic State is collapsing, but it wouldn’t make sense to think it will disappear without leaving any Phoenix’s egg. If we look for a similar case, it is enough to consider what happened in Afghanistan; in 2001 the Taliban regime was obliterated, but soon it regenerated and become an insurgency able to survive for more than 15 years, that now is threatening the very existence of the Afghan State. Therefore, what we have to expect is Da‘esh to melt into civilian population and morph into an insurgency.

Actually, the mutation is Da‘esh is already ongoing; the territorial “de-sanctuarization” is separating foreign fighters from the mass of indigenous tribal militiamen. While local fighters, exploiting familiar, tribal and social links, may easily go underground and form clandestine networks, foreign fighters are more isolated; the privileges they enjoyed and the atrocities they committed against local populace in the name of the Islamic State, doomed them to fight, die or leave – probably going back “home” in Europe, MENA countries or Caucasus. Such a phenomenon is associated to the “ruralisation” of the Da‘esh; small groups of local fighters are scattering across little villages and desert areas, where government’s control is weak, tribal links are strong and it is easy to threaten local population; of course, as in the past, other groups are blending into the population of big cities’ Sunni quartiers. An evidence of this trend is provided by the high rate of foreign fighters dying in Mosul, and the increasing pace of insurgency-terrorist style attacks in Baghdad and other big Iraqi cities.

In any case, we must consider that even after the loss of cohesion and deprived of its spatial dimension, the Caliphate will still enjoy two strategic assets: firstly, a strong leverage on the Sunni population, due to the persistence of Sunni marginalization; secondly, Da‘esh readiness to exploit any internal friction among its adversaries.

Concerning the first asset, namely the support or at least the tolerance of a relevant part of the Sunni population of Syria and Iraq, it constitutes the real center of gravity of Da‘esh, not Raqqah or Mosul. As a matter of fact, the success of the Islamic State was provided by its capacity to coalesce the diverse souls of the Sunni dissent in Iraq and Syria, cementing indigenous and worldwide jihadists, nationalists, ex ba‘athists, islamist groups and, above all, Sunni communities disaffected and alienated toward their governments. In other terms, until the Sunni communities of Siraq will suffer marginalization or oppression by the governments of Baghdad and Damascus, Da‘esh – or its offspring - shall retain the potentiality to raise again from its ashes. If we analyze what happened to the Iraqi and Syrian Sunni communities in the last fifteen years, we may easily understand the causes of Islamic State’s success. In Syria, since the ‘80s, the ruling elite repressed the Sunni majority of the population, granting privileges to alawites and other minorities coopted in the government, in the army and in the private sector. The reaction of the regime to the 2011 protests greatly exacerbated these sectarian cleavages, while regional politics heavily sharpened the Sunni-Shi‘a divide. As a consequence, among Sunni rebels, the upper hand was quickly gained by religion-based movements like the Islamic Front, Ahrar al Shams and Jabhat al Nusrah.

However, while in Syria Da‘esh was somehow imported, it is in Iraq where we find its original breed. The fall of Saddam’s regime cornered Sunni population between Shi‘a and Kurds; actually, the new ethno-sectarian balance nurtured Kurdish autonomy and facilitated Shi‘ite control of central state. As a matter of fact, the state and its institutions become the prey of different ethno-sectarian groups competing for power, wealth and sovereignty, and the Sunni were the weakest player. US urged Sunni inclusion in the political process and was able to curb insurgency through the Surge; however, what really turned the tide was the Awakening that was the empowerment of local Sunni communities in maintaining security and stability. Unluckily, when US withdrew in 2011, al Maliki progressively reversed the trend and fostered a policy of marginalization of the Sunni population, starting with the disbandment of the Awakening forces. So, on the one hand the Iraqi state institutions were weakened by ethno-sectarian partisanship and corruption, on the other hand the more Shi‘a seized power, the more Sunni felt alienated and extraneous from the State. Social, political and economic marginalization was accompanied by poverty, unemployment, lack of infrastructures and blooming criminal economy. Without an active role in the new state institutions, Sunni communities reverted to the surviving networks of the ex ba‘thist “deep state”, who merged with the other Sunni insurgency movements.

Now, even if D‘esh is disarticulated, in the reconquered Iraqi Sunni provinces there is barely a plan to grant governance and security through local forces that are, by the way, divided and discredited. However, it is missing a plan for an effective economic recovery, for the rebuilding of infrastructures and institutions and, furthermore, for a political solution. In parliament, Sunnis are still underrepresented and divided. No matter the national reconciliation plan endorsed by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq.

The second strategic asset of Da‘esh is the ability to exploit any internal friction among its adversaries. The competition for the control of Kirkuk, Mosul and other contested territories seized from Da‘esh -as well as the allocation of oil revenues-, are boosting tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government. Washington, Tehran and Ankara are vying for regional influence, nurturing proxies, while the Popular Mobilization Units are already planning to cash what they have gained on the battlefield; Sunni, incidentally, are still without political and economic means. All these tensions are ethno-sectarian sparks able to ignite again the Phoenix’s nest. Furthermore, even if Da‘esh loses formal control of its Iraqi provinces, it will retain strategic depth in Syria; here the outcome of the war it is still uncertain, and in the future the government’s control of the eastern regions may be unrealistic or, at the best, shaky.

Summarizing, the main problem with stability and security of Siraq is not Da‘esh itself; it is Sunni insurgency capacity to survive and mutate, paired with the persistence of the causes feeding the resentment of the Sunni communities, in a regional environment of sectarian polarization, external influences and proxy wars.

The success of the Awakening movement proved that Iraqi Sunnis are not irreversibly prone to support insurgency and terrorism. But without locally led governance and security, political representation in central government, public services and economic reconstruction, the only possible outcome was foreseen last spring in its sermon by al Adnani, Islamic State spokesperson and strategist, few weeks before being killed in Aleppo: «O America, were we defeated when we lost the cities in Iraq and were in the desert without any city or land? And would we be defeated and you be victorious if you were to take Mosul, Sirte or Raqqa, or even take all the cities? Certainly not».