Raqqa is free as ISIS loses steam, but hold off on the victory dance

Raqqa is free as ISIS loses steam, but hold off on the victory dance
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The liberation of Raqqa this week is a glimpse of light in an otherwise dark landscape. Anyone witnessing U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces prevail in Raqqa could be excused for betraying a bit of enthusiasm. After all, Raqqa was the well-run and heavily defended capital of the self-declared Islamic State, featured prominently in ISIS social media, marketing the virtues of a divinely sanctioned state. Raqqa’s bold existence reinforced the Islamic State’s claim to legitimacy and served as a beacon to ISIS recruits across the globe. Its loss, after several years of brutal terrorism and insurgency, could well call for celebration.

ISIS has indeed lost much of its territory since 2014 when it burst onto stage by decisively seizing Mosul in Iraq. But it has since fallen on hard times. The sanctuary and easy access to medical care and international airline connections through Turkey have dried up. Fighter recruitment has slackened, revenues are down, and tens of thousands of the group’s local and foreign fighters are dead. Senior U.S. officials remark that America’s own military could not fight on amid a proportional number casualties. Yet, ISIS does.

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With ISIS in such a parlous state, why the negative outlook for the campaign against this former Al Qaeda affiliate? Media reporting over the past year detailed setback after setback for ISIS, with major cities in both Iraq and Syria falling to a mix of Arab rebels, Kurdish militias, state forces, and their proxies. Progress, it seemed, was at hand.

There are good reasons for not overstating the value of Raqqa’s liberation (giant posters of Turkish PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan going up in the town square this week might be our first clue, since it will only exacerbate tensions with the Turks). Any such triumph must be viewed in the context of a broader, coherent plan to address the many ills afflicting both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. Alas, no such plan is to be found.

Instead, we have at least three key, ominous issues with which to contend: powerful actors in and near the region maneuvering for advantage, innumerable environmental factors inhibiting peace and prosperity, and the resilience, adaptability and lethality of ISIS itself.

The major players on and off the battlefield hold divergent views of what comes next. This troubled neighborhood is rife with spoilers and aggressors positioning themselves to exert maximum influence while blunting that of their rivals. Iran’s quiver includes the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, Popular Mobilization Units (Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria), and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Russia is a key player influencing outcomes after providing critical air support and ground forces to rescue the Syrian regime from certain defeat. A reluctant and war weary United States found, funded and furnished a reliable proxy in Syrian Kurdish forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga of Iraq, earning Washington a measure of influence, but also the anger of Ankara and Baghdad.

Turkey has major stakes across its southern border, inserting commandos and supporting militant groups such as Ahrar Al Sham, among many others. Arabian Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, back a wide array of powerful Syrian opposition forces, some with conflicting aims and allegiances.

Governments in Syria and Iraq are struggling to regain their footing, and do little to inspire confidence in the future. Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi military have already exchanged gunfire, as Baghdad seeks to stymie the former’s active campaign for autonomy. Any further fracturing of Iraq would only make conditions more favorable to ISIS, a group adept at operating amid chaos and exploiting the enduring marginalization of Sunni population centers. Finally, the Assad regime’s responsibility for unspeakable civilian atrocities lays bare its malevolent vision of the future.

These competing priorities and actors expose the immense complications in bringing about peace, reconciliation, economic development, good governance, and other critical elements that could otherwise foster an environment where the ISIS promise rings hollow. Those actors operate amid a host of negative factors too long to list in its entirety, but let’s give it a try. There is unemployment, corruption, inept government, demographic strain, sectarianism, racial tension, regional rivalry, rampant crime, religious radicalization, resource depletion, the list goes on.

The constellation of problems in Syria and Iraq would test the most capable and well-resourced government, and there are precious few in sight. The United States is hardly able to lead. Though the Pentagon has performed ably, a typically talented (if emaciated) State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development could play key roles but are hobbled by a Trump administration more interested in disabling than enabling. There is no policy direction to speak of, let alone to implement.

Let’s assume for a moment that all players were rowing in one direction and the negative factors were solved. We still have to contend with ISIS. And, though this discussion is about measuring the impact of liberating their capital, let’s not forget that Al Qaeda and its thousands of fighters and key leaders are plotting away in Syria’s Idlib Province.

Losing Raqqa was not unanticipated by ISIS. A sober realization of its fortunes hit long ago, prompting a pivot by the Jihadi-Salafi group. Fighters, leaders, encrypted phones, facilitators, money, and other necessities of a terror campaign were sent forth to Europe and elsewhere. ISIS’s well-oiled expeditionary capability and resources were moved into high gear with the impending loss of territory.

Hard won experience from more than a decade of vicious insurgency campaigns in Iraq offers a familiar playbook, as ISIS melts back into the landscape, its profile lowered and skills honed. ISIS can operate with relative ease across the region’s terrorist and insurgent estuaries, where fighters and leaders easily forge new alliances. Weapons and motivation are not in short supply. ISIS knows this turf. The tribal leaders, terrain, resources, tunnels, and corrupt officials are all familiar touch points from the recent past and ready for molding into a new campaign propelled by a desire for revenge.

The foregoing plainly illustrates that freeing Raqqa does not amount to an “American victory,” nor portend a bright future for the region, and it certainly does not signal the end of ISIS. Rather, it is merely one more step in the evolution of a violent extremist group and the pitiful disintegration of the region. Let’s not deny ourselves some welcome news before sobering up on the reality of Raqqa’s liberation. ISIS loudly cheered the establishment of its capital in Raqqa, the seat of the caliphate it deemed “lasting and expanding.”

From Raqqa came the ordering of a harshly ruled society across an admittedly impressive amount of territory, one that drew in thousands of Muslims from throughout the globe. As the Arab Spring unfolded, this rising Islamic State struck a vivid contrast to the rapid collapse of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, an intoxicating counterpoint to failed secular regimes. Yet, at the end of the day, ISIS still gets a vote on the future, whether they have a capital city or not.

Thomas M. Sanderson is a senior fellow and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has conducted field research in 70 countries, testified before Congress, and has served as a consultant for the U.S. government on terrorism, geopolitics and global threats.