Tag Archives: Kurds

The End of ISIS?

So ISIS – or Daesh (‘one who crushes something underfoot’) as the Arabs call it – is finally defeated. Like trapped rats, the last jihadi fanatics hide in their final boltholes to await their inevitable doom at the hands of the Kurds, Turk, and Syrian armies – helped by the US, Russian and UK’s Royal Air Force – all closing in for the kill. Thousands of men, women and children have fled ISIS’s surrounded final stronghold in the village of Baghuz, on the Iraqi border, surrendering to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the Kurdish-led militias backed by the West. The women and children seen streaming into squalid desert refugee camps to be told what the future holds for the families of the broken terrorist army are the tangible evidence of defeat.

The war is over and everyone can come home … er, well, no … it isn’t, actually.

If you tread on a poisonous mushroom it explodes to scatter its thousands of spores throughout the woods. So it is with ISIS, because group was never just a ragtime army of Islamic hotheads living on captured land. ISIS is much more: it is an ideology that cannot be crushed and exterminated with bullets rockets and bombs. Ideas are spread like spores. Defeat on the battlefield has had the effect of scattering the survivors of the army of the faithful throughout the Middle East – and far beyond. The battle is won, but the war will go on.

This time it will be a war based on two separate but linked campaigns. First is the need to keep the flame of Islamic purity and the search for God’s kingdom of the Ummat al-Islām ( أمة الإسلام ), the collective community of Islam, alive to carry the Holy Gospel of the sacred Koran far afield. Second, the ISIS survivors now on the run are planning a bitter revenge on the West and all those infidels who have destroyed their dream of an ideologically pure Muslim Caliphate.

No one sees this more clearly than General Joseph Votel, who is in charge of US operations in the Middle East. In evidence to the US Congress’s House Armed Services Committee hearing on 7 March 2019, he shared evidence that although Daesh militants are losing the last of their territory in Syria, the militants who remain represent a ‘serious generational problem’. He told the hearing: ‘We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization. Reduction of the physical caliphate is a monumental military accomplishment – but the fight against ISIS and violent extremism is far from over and our mission remains the same.’ The general also warned of more trouble ahead: ‘The Isis population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised.’

General Votel is right. Those who have held out until now are still defiant. What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organisation, but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and going to ground in remote areas to wait for the right time to re-emerge to carry on the fight elsewhere.

Many of the women have told reporters they are unrepentant in their support for ISIS and have pledged to continue the struggle. Women in camps for the displaced have even reported attempts to maintain ISIS discipline there, with unveiled women being attacked by other ‘ISIS brides’.

One 60-year-old woman, who did not want to be named, said that ISIS will continue because the ‘Caliphate’s Cubs’ under the terror group’s rule have been trained to fight from a young age.   She said: ‘The caliphate will not end, because it has been ingrained in the hearts and brains of the newborns and the little ones.’ Some of the civilians threw rocks at the cameras of those trying to film them, whilst one screamed at a photographer and called him a pig.

The captured fighters on the other hand have kept their heads down. Most have been taken to Kurdish and Syrian detention camps. Their fate remains unclear, especially the many hundreds of foreign fighters whose home countries are reluctant to take them back. They are an international hot potato for whom – understandably – no one wants to take responsibility.

The real danger now is that ISIS supporters are being urged to launch lone-wolf terror attacks on Western targets, according to their message traffic. The organisation still has the wherewithal to fight. A UN report published last month claimed ISIS has a secret war chest of up to $300 million (£230 million) that could be used to sustain its operations and fund new attacks on the West. Although the terror group is assessed to have ‘bulk stored’ some of the money in its stronghold area (leading to one spectacular USAF strike on a warehouse that literally blew millions of dollars up into the sky), much of the rest has been smuggled abroad or invested in legitimate businesses. So, not only does ISIS still have an army of sympathisers on which to call, it also has plenty of cash to fund any future operations.

Already there are ISIS propaganda posters encouraging new attacks, including one depicting a man walking through an airport dragging a suitcase depicting the terror group’s logo. We have seen similar Islamist terror posters in the past, often using images of major Western cities such as New York and London as part of their scare tactics. To further strengthen the case that ISIS is going to ground but still remaining active, monitoring agencies report that known ISIS sympathisers are sharing encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram to ‘inspire’ extremists to carry out terror attacks. This follows reports that desperate ISIS-linked media groups are calling for a new ‘online jihad’ now that the terrorists have been neutralised in Syria and Iraq.

The problem is that, like Communism, jihadism is a global phenomenon. History has shown us the dangers of underestimating the power of ideologies. In places like Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Mali and Yemen, fundamental Islam is still prepared to fight and die for the cause, as al-Qaeda still demonstrates. One of the jihadi’s key mantras is ‘stay and expand’. This philosophy and a willingness to accept heavy casualties whilst planning for a long struggle are rooted in a firm belief that God favours their cause and sometimes tests the faithful so that only the purest at heart will survive to fight and win the ultimate battle. Such a mindset makes for a dangerous adversary, whatever its losses.

There is also growing evidence that the group’s surviving leadership have moved to disperse some of their fighters, arms and riches, preparing ISIS to resume terrorist and insurgent operations after the caliphate’s collapse. This campaign has already started in Iraq, where Islamic State is again conducting assassinations, bombings and other operations despite having lost control of vast territories. Given the way Syria is currently partitioned, the various political vacuums in the region are already giving fleeing ISIS State militants time and space to regroup and set up new operations.

The bitter truth is that Islamic State is just one branch of a global insurgency, a problem the world cannot solve by just killing and bombing one single nest of vipers. Combatting a global insurgency will require a coordinated global counterinsurgency effort. This means that efforts to defeat jihadist groups must persist well after the ‘clear’ phase to the ‘hold’ and ‘build’ phases of counterinsurgency. In addition, this must happen in every part of the world where the jihadist insurgency is manifesting itself, from Bali to Birmingham.

Of one thing we can be sure. The erasure of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Syria won’t ensure its final defeat. The war goes on ….

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ISIS: The Final Countdown?

Winston Churchill once famously said, ‘battles are the punctuation marks of history.’ Well, we have just avoided a potentially disastrous ‘exclamation mark’ in the bloody history of the Middle East. Whilst the post-colonial Versailles settlement of 1919 is being brutally readjusted to take account of the harsh realities of today’s Muslim world, a major crisis has just been avoided. At Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, Turkey and Russia have agreed to form a joint, demilitarised buffer zone around Syria’s embattled north-western province bordering Turkey: Idlib.

This agreement defuses a growing crisis between Ankara and Moscow by preventing any major Russian-backed government offensive from exploding into ISIS’s final rebellious Syrian redoubt. However, significant obstacles remain; Idlib could still become a flash point.

The problem is that the Middle East is as much of an unexploded bomb today as Europe was in 1914. Sunni Saudi Arabia hates Iran, and Shi’a Iran loathes the Saudis. Shi’ite Assad’s remaining chunk of Syria is the close ally of Iran. Behind the Saudis stand the USA, Britain and France. Behind the Iranians stand the Russians, sometimes the Turks, ever keen to obliterate the Kurds, and perhaps China – and watching nervously from its ringside seat is Israel.

For the past ten years we have all been living with this savage struggle to the death. Muslim has been slaughtering Muslim, all in the name of the Prophet of the religion of Peace and Love – ‘May his name be blessed.’ Now this round is nearly over; or is it?

The Turkish-Russian Sochi deal has been welcomed by all sides as an opportunity to avert the suffering that any major offensive would inflict on the province’s 3 million civilians. UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the agreement, saying that the ‘creation of a buffer zone in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province should avert an all-out military assault and provide reprieve for millions of civilians.’

It would also avoid the heavy losses that would be incurred by government forces in launching the biggest battle yet of the Syrian war against the cornered rebels. Turkey, the UN and aid groups have warned that any major assault by Russian and government forces backing President Bashar al-Assad against the trapped rebel fighters would lead to a massacre. It could also send 800,000 new refugees fleeing across the border into an already overwhelmed Turkey.

Many of the civilians in Idlib are already refugees from other parts of Syria following the collapse of the opposition resistance in cities such as Aleppo. The consequences of an all-out offensive against Idlib with its hapless civilians and the risk of Turkish troops fighting Russians could have led to a bloodbath.

The agreement is specifically designed to halt this major Russian-Syrian-Iranian attack on Idlib, with its trapped civilians.  The agreement calls for a 9- to 12-mile demilitarised  zone around the borders of the region, safe from Syrian and Russian air-force attack and which must be in place by 15 October. Heavy weapons including tanks, mortars and artillery will be withdrawn and Russian and Turkish troops will police the neutral zone. The Syrian government said that it ‘welcomed any initiative that stops bloodshed and contributes to security and stability.’ President Recep Tayyip Erdogan added, ‘With this memorandum of understanding, I believe we have prevented a major humanitarian crisis in Idlib.’

However, the devil is in the detail. The deal’s success hinges on the withdrawal of an estimated 10,000 fanatical jihadi rebel fighters from the buffer zone, fighting under the banner of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida and listed as dangerous terrorists by Russia, the USA and the UN.

These are some of Syria’s fiercest rebels, battle-hardened over years of gruelling warfare. HTS will fight to the death rather than surrender and they have good reason to do so: talks with the government have gone nowhere. In recently recaptured parts of the country, Assad’s goons have promptly arrested former rebels and opposition officials despite assurances of amnesty. Many have disappeared into Assad’s torture dungeons. ‘It’s either die, or surrender – and then die,’ says one rebel leader.

Despite these problems, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (a staunch supporter of Assad) tweeted: ‘Diplomacy works.’ However, he added that his visits to Turkey and Russia in recent weeks had achieved ‘a firm commitment to fight extremist terror.’ Putin himself added, ‘Russia and Turkey reiterated their commitment to continue anti-terrorism efforts in Syria in any of its forms or manifestations.’

Quite how this agreement to quarantine Idlib helps to stamp Islamic terrorism remains unclear because the deal is very fragile. With jets from at least six countries – Israel, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Britain and America – roaming the skies over Syria, the risk of mistakes leading to further escalation of the fighting are just a pilot’s blink away. Also, where will the rebels go?

Nevertheless, the international consequences of Sochi are important. Russia has scored a major diplomatic victory by striking a deal with Turkey. Moscow has avoided damaging its growing strategic relationship with Ankara, whilst achieving its own aims in Syria without more bloodshed. The Syrian war may be ending.

However, some things have not changed. ‘Russia doesn’t like the rebels and they want to help Assad lock down his victory; but they also have strong incentives to continue courting the Turks,’ said Aron Lund, an expert on the region. ‘Syria is just a small part of what Putin cares about. If he can just make the Syrian conflict quiet and unthreatening with Assad still in power, then Russia has won the war ….’

Idlib’s locals have mixed emotions about the Sochi deal. Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a 32-year-old teacher living in Idlib remains wary. ‘After seven years, if we trusted anyone we would be fools. Whenever we trust anyone they trick us,’ said Mr Alhamdo, who lived through the siege of Aleppo before fleeing to Idlib.  He added that he was ‘so happy, and so sad’ about the deal, because it still leaves them in limbo.  ‘People might be able to live again. Children might know there is tomorrow without planes. But we are still in nowhere. Refugees forever.’

Others have spotted the loopholes in the agreement. Thanassis Cambanis of The Century Foundation warns: ‘The gaping hole is that “terrorists” are still fair game. Putin has endorsed a lot of truces, but then Russia proceeded to bomb groups it defines as terrorists, because it says they weren’t part of the wider deal.’

This truce might be different. Putin’s own credibility is at stake, having made such a high-profile deal with President Erdogan. Turkey and Russia are increasingly becoming trade and diplomatic partners. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear reactor. The Kremlin also sees the strains between Turkey and western countries as a wonderful opportunity to divide and weaken the NATO alliance, to which Turkey provides the second largest number of troops. Putin has a personal stake in the Idlib agreement.

However, whilst for the Jihadis the battle may be lost, their long war is not over, because crushing ISIS in Syria will not eradicate the real problem. If the jihadis escape, the deadly spores of terrorism will merely disperse to spread their Islamist terrorism, which is already ‘global and growing.’ Islamist extremists caused 84,000 deaths in 2017 and intelligence agencies have identified 121 groups sharing a common ideology, now operating worldwide. They killed 84,000 people – nearly 22,000 of them civilians – in 66 countries in 2017, according to latest reports.

Even Whitehall admits that a convicted jihadi terrorist is being released onto the streets of Britain nearly every week. Home Office figures show that 46 prisoners held for terrorism offences were released in 2017 (The Telegraph, 13 September 2018)

ISIS and al Qa’ida are still very dangerous. Whatever happens in Idlib, we have not heard the last of them. The fallout from Syria will be with us for years.