The Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) always differed from other radical Islamist movements in their willingness to create a “caliphate,” or a geographical state of their own. At their strongest, they swept through large portions of Iraq and Syria, taking over and holding territory that at one point reached almost to the outskirts of Baghdad. But we are now at the point where the end is in sight for the group’s territorial holdings. The opponents of the Islamic State have been rolling back their borders and soon will liberate all of the Islamic State’s territory. The aftermath, both for the Islamic State and for the territories involved, is going to be even more complicated than the fighting has so far been. But it’s now time to consider what will happen when the Islamic State no longer has a state.
The fighting is far from over, of course. The end is still months away, but it’s probably not years away anymore. Two maps show the full scope of the battle. The first is from an article written years ago, and shows the high-water mark of the Islamic State’s territorial holdings. The second is the Wikipedia war-tracking page, which minutely shows who currently controls what in Syria and Iraq. This map changes almost daily, it should be noted.
In Iraq, Mosul is about to be completely freed from the Islamic State. The battle for the city has been going on for eight months now, and all that is left to retake is the city’s center ― everything else has now been liberated. Three pockets of Iraqi territory under the Islamic State’s control will remain after the fall of Mosul: Tal Afar, Hawija, and a portion of the major road from Baghdad to the Syrian border. In Syria, the battle for Raqqa has now begun. The Islamic State is shrinking and will soon only consist of territory around the eastern Syrian city of Deir Al-Zour. This noose has been tightening for a long time, but in roughly the past two years the Islamic State has consistently lost territory. They’ve only gained territory once, and only briefly, when they retook the ancient city of Palmyra from Syrian forces. This didn’t last long, as the Syrian forces soon returned to evict the Islamic State once again. Other than that minor short-term victory, the Islamic State has been on a steady losing streak everywhere.
But now the end of the fight against the Islamic State is in sight. The endgame is obvious: clear Mosul completely and mop up the remaining pockets of Islamic State territory within Iraq. Take Raqqa back. Then push from at least three directions towards Deir Al-Zour. Meet in the middle, and crush the Islamic State’s territorial holdings for good.
That’s easy to type out, but not so easy in practice. Because this isn’t so much an “us against them” battle with easy-to-understand alliances, instead it is more of an “everyone against them, and once that’s done we’ll all start fighting each other” situation. There are so many players involved that you really need a scorecard to keep them all straight. Take just one ― Iranian militia fighters. The United States is about to be in a rather strange situation where we are allied with the Iranians on one side of a border, but fighting them on the other side of that border. This isn’t the only group with such complicated dynamics, either. The United States is backing the Kurdish fighters in both Iraq and Syria, but in Syria the Kurds have also been fighting forces from Turkey ― who is, incidentally, a NATO ally of ours.
The Iranian militias have been indispensable in the fighting in northeastern Iraq. They were not allowed to join the battle for Mosul itself, but they have been clearing out dozens of villages and are now reportedly considering crossing the border to launch a quick push towards Deir Al-Zour. Iran wants to wind up controlling this entire region of Syria, but American-backed forces are also pushing towards the same route the Iranians are contemplating. So will American forces start fighting the Iranian militias in Syria, while continuing to fight alongside the same militias within Iraq? In Iraq, the use of the militias is a provocation, given their propensity to detain, torture, and kill the Sunni people in the towns they’ve “liberated.” Some are even cautioning that there may be a civil war in Iraq after the Islamic State is eradicated there. Will the Iranians quietly withdraw from territory they fought and bled for? Or will they decide to stick around, and possibly start fighting the Kurds or just continue clamping down on the Sunnis? If any of this comes to pass, what will America’s position be? We’ve been directly aiding both the Kurds and the Iraqi military forces, but not the Iranian militias. But the successes the Iraqi forces have had have come about as a direct result of the Iranian militia support. It isn’t spoken of much in Washington, but America has essentially pushed Iraq closer to Iran in the fight against the Islamic State. So what is going to happen when that battle’s been won?
Syria is even more complicated, since a multi-army civil war free-for-all is going on simultaneously with the fight against the Islamic State. To the north and northeast of the Islamic State’s territory in Syria are the Kurds, who had the earliest successes against the group and retook almost the entire border between Syria and Turkey. They’re the ones currently besieging Raqqa, as well. The American military has been aiding their efforts with air support. To the northwest, Turkey has entered the fight against both the Islamic State and against the Kurds we support. Turkey’s initial goal was to prevent the Kurds from consolidating the entire Syrian side of the border under their control. To the west and southwest of the Islamic State are the Syrian government’s forces, who have recently retaken enormous amounts of desert acreage from the Islamic State. But this has pushed them up against the American-held Al Tanf border crossing with Iraq. The United States has recently launched a few airstrikes against Syrian forces who have gotten too close to this base, in fact.
To the south and southeast of the Islamic State lies one of their remaining chunks of Iraqi territory (a border crossing and a segment of the road to Baghdad). But this is the goal that both the Americans on the border and the Iranian militias are now pushing towards, in a race to see who gets there first. Will we clash with not just the Islamic State fighters but also with the Iranians? These are the same Iranian militias we’ve been fighting alongside in Iraq, after all.
What all of this means is that the situation in both Iraq and Syria is going to be incredibly messy even after the last Islamic State fighter is captured or killed. The fighting is probably not going to end at that point, even after the common enemy is removed from the board. The big question is where we fit into those fights after the Islamic State is gone, but it’s a question that so far isn’t even really being addressed by the Trump administration. Or asked much by the media, for that matter.
As for the Islamic State itself, we’re already seeing what the future holds. They are losing territory, and have been for two years. This means they don’t have much in the way of victories to brag about, which hurts their ability to recruit foreign fighters. Their major sources of income are about to disappear. When they held towns and cities, they could freely tax the inhabitants. When they held oil fields, they could make millions selling the oil. Both those sources are fast drying up. The biggest unanswered question in the remaining fight against the Islamic State’s territory is what will happen to the Islamic State’s leadership? If they are killed or captured, it will be a major blow to the organization. But if they escape and move to other lawless areas (such as Libya, for instance), the organization will have some continuity and likely be able to continue launching terrorist attacks, even after losing their self-proclaimed caliphate.
The geographic diminishment of the Islamic State is quite likely to unleash a wave of international terrorist attacks. We’re already seeing the beginnings of this wave, in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. A terrorist attack also just happened in Tehran, which is rather eye-opening. Denied their caliphate and denied their major sources of income, the Islamic State will have to shrink. But not all of their fighters will die or be captured on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Some of them will return to their home countries, and launch “lone wolf” terrorist attacks. Foreign recruits to the Islamic State will soon have no caliphate to travel to, so they’ll likely be encouraged to launch small-scale terrorist attacks against soft targets wherever they currently are.
This isn’t good news, but it should be expected. Defeating the Islamic State’s territorial holdings will deny it a state. Its own title will become a lie, or at the very least a metaphor. It will become a stateless Islamic State, in other words. But this is likely not going to crush the organization as a whole, and the world should be prepared for this. It is going to lash out in response to losing its state, and we’ve already seen what damage it can do using only a truck or a knife. Add in a few automatic weapons and you get hundreds of club-goers slaughtered. The Islamic State’s state is nearing an end. But this doesn’t mean the end of the Islamic State, and we should all be prepared for what comes next.
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