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  • Iraq will need a political process including Sunnis to cope with a “son of Daesh”
  • Al-Qaeda is developing a sophisticated franchise to fill the jihadi vacuum
  • Iran’s push into the Levant, and Turkey’s battle with the Kurds, will constrain Western responses

As the battle for Mosul concludes, the battle for Raqqa is entering its initial phase. From a military perspective, the fall of these twin bastions of Daesh (otherwise known as Islamic State, or IS) was never in doubt. The only question was the cost, in human lives and material destruction, and the strategic consequences.

In Mosul, the cost is clear. Damage to the city – retaken in savage, door-to-door fighting by a coalition of Iraqi Army and the Interior Ministry troops, Iran-backed Shia militias, Kurdish Peshmerga and Western special forces – is massive. The death toll has not been established but is certain to be very high. Adding to the carnage is the plight of 900,000 displaced civilians, inadequately fed and sheltered in improvised camps around Mosul.

High civilian casualties were the unavoidable result of artillery and air bombardments in support of Iraqi forces attacking into a densely populated conurbation. Aggravating factors were the intricate layout of west Mosul’s Old City, the close-quarters nature of the fighting and Daesh’s practice of using the civilian population as human shields.

Daesh’s children

The answer to the second question – the strategic consequences of Daesh’s defeat in Mosul – will depend on the Iraqi government. Unless it alters its sectarian course to bring in the Sunnis – who make up some 32 percent of the country’s population – as real political partners, the emergence of a “son of Daesh” will not be far off. In that case, successor movements could repeat the same cycle every five or 10 years.

A great deal will also depend on the United States sustaining an on-the-ground military presence over the long term. Keeping tactical pressure on the terrorists is essential to win time for the political process to mature until the Sunnis win a serious role in government. Instead of today’s high-intensity urban warfare, these operations will evolve into a counterinsurgency mainly focused on the countryside and rural enclaves. It is crucial that this effort deny Daesh’s successors the ability to turn themselves again into a military force capable of attacking large cities.

There will inevitably be a successor movement to Daesh. In fact, there will be two

The assault on Raqqa will cause similar destruction, and create the same need for a political process to deal with the aftermath. Naturally, there are many differences between Iraq and Syria in terms of the features and players. But in the broader sweep of events, Mosul and Raqqa are strictly tactical victories, whatever the media claims. They do not constitute strategic steps toward eradicating Islamist jihadi activities – whether in the Levant, North Africa or elsewhere. That can only happen if the military campaign is accompanied by a serious political strategy, carefully tailored for the Iraqi and Syrian cases, which are each embedded in distinct international and regional contexts.

There will inevitably be a “son of Daesh.” In fact, there will be two. The first will be an insurgency inside Iraq, as we have mentioned. The second is the ongoing blowback of foreign fighters, especially from Syria, into Europe, which poses a sustained, long-term terrorist threat to mainland Europe itself. The makeup of Daesh’s surviving 30,000-or-so fighters differs significantly between Syria and Iraq: 70 percent in the former are foreigners, whereas in the latter the proportions are reversed. These jihadists will be looking to move on to Europe (which an estimated 5,000 Daesh fighters call home) or continue the struggle in North Africa, the Sahel and parts of Southeast Asia – where simmering religious or sectarian tensions can generate at least some local support, as in the Philippines.

A winning franchise

Besides successor movements to Daesh, other “winners” will emerge in the various vacuums and situations resulting from its military defeat. These rising groups and powers are among the unintended consequences of tactical decisions made in the absence of a coherent strategic framework.

The first winner of this tactical obsession with Daesh, which owes more to the Western alliance's domestic political counterterrorism agenda than to any sort of long-term strategic planning, is none other than our old strategic nemesis – al-Qaeda and its affiliates, which will be referred to here as the “al-Qaeda franchise.”

Daesh gained prominence largely due to the impact of its hybrid-warfare model on political discourse in the West. Its combination of graphic violence, digital propaganda and emotive narratives effectively radicalized its target audience, spurring terrorist attacks in Europe and wherever else it operates. Strategically, however, Daesh’s impact has been limited by the constraints imposed by its need to control and administer territory – a key source of its legitimacy (in its own eyes) as a quasi-state with most of the attributes of government, including tax collection. These activities absorbed a considerable portion of Daesh's energies and resources that would otherwise have been devoted to the struggle.

Al-Nusra’s leader announces the rebranding of the al-Qaeda backed movement in 2016
A template for the new al-Qaeda franchise was the rebranding of Syria’s al-Nusra Front as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, here being announced by leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani (source: dpa)

While attention was focused on dislodging Daesh from its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa, and on preventing its terrorist attacks in Europe, a reinvigorated network of al-Qaeda franchises was springing up across large areas of the Levant, North Africa and the Sahel, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. This network has coalesced around the son of Osama Bin Laden, Hamza, who is emerging at the age of 26 as a viable leader.

The Syrian Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is an excellent example of the likely rough template for the future al-Qaeda franchise. Having rebranded itself as a national Syrian jihadist force, focused first and foremost on defeating the Assad regime (the new name means “Front of the Free of the Levant,” Levant here meaning Syria), it has gained leeway to form local alliances. This also puts a useful distance between the organization and the al-Qaeda’s central leadership, while positioning it as nationally rooted, ideologically and theologically advanced, and much better funded and focused than its predecessor.

In the longer term and across different territories, this decentralized, nationally focused model appears to be more advanced than Daesh’s. Because the al-Qaeda franchise is based on the consent of at least a significant minority in the areas under its control, it presents more of a strategic challenge, and will require a considerably more sophisticated spectrum of countermeasures. Containing and defeating it will likely involve decades of sustained engagement.

China joins in

Geopolitically, it is significant that for the first time, China will likely be among the countries fighting a resurgent al-Qaeda franchise and other successor movements. The challenge the Chinese face is to their broader Belt Road Initiative (BRI), as they seek to incorporate Pakistan into a vast trading and logistics plan to develop a $57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) stretching from the western Chinese province of Xinjiang to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.

Dealing with Pakistan's various Afghan involvements, principally Islamabad’s support for various factions of the Taliban, will become a matter of strategic interest for Beijing. China is already coping with a low-intensity jihadist insurgency in its Uighur region. An early indication of Chinese involvement in the Afghan-Pakistani cauldron was the Chinese foreign minister’s recent visit to Kabul, where he attempted to defuse tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan that followed recent bombings blamed on a Pakistani-backed Talib group, the Haqqani network.

In time, both Russia and Iran may see an interest in cooperating with this Chinese endeavor, creating a parallel campaign to contain and defeat al-Qaeda’s global franchise. Russia and Pakistan, old foes during the Cold War, conducted their first joint military exercises in 2016, while the Chinese military made its debut appearance at Islamabad’s Independence Day parade on March 23, 2017.

Map of overland supply routes from Iran to Syria
Iran may build a roundabout supply route to its bases near Damascus and in Lebanon rather than challenge U.S.-backed forces at At Tanf (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Iran collision

The second direct impact of Daesh’s tactical defeat will be to bring U.S. and Western forces into direct contact with Iranian troops, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Iranian-backed militias. The confrontation will most likely take place in a triangular-shaped vacuum in the desert regions of western Iraq and eastern Syria, especially around the At Tanf border point on the Baghdad-Damascus highway.

As Daesh's military arm starts to disperse into an insurgency mode, this three-cornered region where Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet is up for grabs. Both the U.S. and Iranian forces have been vying for control, which recently led to direct, small-scale military confrontations between these powers and their proxies.

For Iran and the Syrian government, this is prime territory to control, not only because of its strategic importance, but also to weaken the hold of the Sunni tribes and forces native to western Iraq. From an American perspective, securing this region would deny Iran and Syria a crucial strategic advantage.

Any escalation or accidental confrontation in this border area could trigger a broader U.S.-Iranian confrontation, complicating the geopolitical picture and impeding any possibility of a viable political process to resolve sectarian tensions in Iraq. That in turn would doom any hope of turning the tactical military victory at Mosul into a lasting strategic achievement.

Road warriors

The third direct impact of Daesh’s territorial losses is to make possible the construction of another direct logistical link between Iran and Lebanon. This alternate supply route, running through the Iraqi province of Diyala, with a possible branch running northwest into Syria via Al Baaj, could potentially reach all the way to Damascus and the Golan Heights and Israeli border beyond – bypassing the main road through Ramadi and At Tanf.

The Iran-backed and trained Iraqi Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which played a key role in the battle for Mosul, has been taking the lead on clearing Daesh from Al Baaj with some of its 60,000 well-trained militiamen. It is also securing access to the Iraq-Syria border to allow a further extension of this vital strategic road, which has become a top Iranian priority.

However, the PMF have made clear that they will not cross into Syria without being ordered to by the Iraqi government. For the time being, therefore, extending this logistical route onto Syrian territory will be left to the local Shia militias and their Syrian allies. Success would give Iran for the first time a clear road to Lebanon, providing a vital lifeline to Hezbollah in any future conflict with Israel, while making it easier to supply Syrian government forces.

Shia militias parade under green banners in Baghdad, Iraq
Iranian sponsorship has built Iraqi Shia militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces, here seen celebrating Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Baghdad, into a force to be reckoned with (source: dpa)

Golan threat

An even greater concern is that this road will play a vital role if fighting breaks out in the region south of Damascus, which forms a natural gateway to the Golan Heights. Control of this area would give Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors yet another springboard for attacks across the Israeli border, in addition to their current bases in southern Lebanon. The threat of a wider armed conflict this prospect poses must now raise even greater concern to Israel and the international powers than Daesh.

So far, Israel has avoided getting embroiled in the Syrian civil war, but that has not diminished its determination to prevent Iran and its surrogate Shia militias from reaching the Golan Heights. In bilateral talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly sought and received assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Syrian-Israeli border and Golan region would be kept free from the influence of Iran and its proxies. This may be easier said than done, however, and the risk remains high that the border could become an Israeli-Iranian flashpoint.

The strategic advantage that Iran is acquiring by pushing into western Iraq outweighs any benefits that the U.S. and its allies have gained from their military victories

It seems that Israel suggested a 30-kilometer-wide security zone on the Syrian side all the way to the Jordanian border. The strategic advantage that Iran is acquiring by pushing into western and northwestern Iraq, thus gaining de facto control of the Iraq-Syria border region, while establishing an overland supply route to the Mediterranean and edging closer to the Syria-Israeli border, outweighs any benefits that the U.S. and its allies have gained from their military victories against Daesh.

Fruits of neglect

So far, the push for a tactical victory in Raqqa betrays an equally distressing lack of strategic thinking. In part, this is due to the makeup of the U.S.-led coalition staging the assault, which is being led by a mixed group Arab and Kurdish militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which forms the backbone of the SDF, are allegedly linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which has been officially designated by Turkey as a terrorist organization and is regarded by Ankara as a mortal enemy. This means the push toward Raqqa is creating friction within the Western alliance. While the U.S., NATO and the European Union have all backed the YPG to varying degrees, Turkey and its local allies (mainly the Free Syrian Army, or FSA) have been fighting against it since the Turkish Army launched Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016.

The full impact of these stresses will only become clear once Daesh is defeated in Raqqa – especially if there is conspicuous celebrating by the Kurdish militias. The example of Mosul, where the Shia PMF have been playing Shia songs and flaunting Shia symbols in a thoroughly Sunni city, shows that Raqqa’s population could be antagonized and Ankara might double down on its military intervention.

Certainly, it cannot be assumed that Turkey will remain passive after Daesh is defeated. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could conclude that only expanded Turkish Army operations can break the hold of the Kurdish autonomy and the YPG on most of its southern border. This would clearly bring Turkey into conflict not only with the U.S., its NATO allies and the EU, but also potentially with Russia.

Tactical victories can only be turned into strategic gains if a meaningful political process can be put in place

In both Mosul and Raqqa, tactical victories can only be turned into long-term strategic gains if a meaningful political process can be put in place. In Iraq, this would allow the creation of an inclusive government with strong Sunni representation, capable of exercising control over the whole country within its internationally recognized borders. In Syria, this would involve a comprehensive agreement reconciling the interests of the various groups and powers, while blocking Iran’s thrust to the Golan Heights and the Mediterranean Sea.

Without such a process, today’s military triumphs will only pave the way for Daesh’s successors and the al-Qaeda franchise, as well as for Iran and its proxies.

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