From Mosul to Raqqa: What happens next for IS?

From Mosul to Raqqa: What happens next for IS?
Comment: Islamic State may be on the back foot militarily, but it is no stranger to adaptation, and in the future could become a different creature entirely, writes James Denselow
5 min read
18 Nov, 2016
Iraqi soldiers display captured IS flag, near the outskirts of Mosul, November 7, 2016 [AFP]

The rise of IS has been so fast and its impact so great, that some may struggle to remember a Middle East without them. Yet as meteoric as their ascendancy to the announcement of a "Caliphate" was, so too, could be the decline and demise of the organisation.

June 2014 may be seen as the high water mark for what was then widely accepted to be the richest, most dangerous and arguably most brutal non-state actor in the world.

Today IS is on the back foot. Over the last week it was reported that they had lost 500sq kilometres to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who are advancing on the capital of their "Caliphate" in Raqqa. Meanwhile, a month into the battle for Mosul, fighting is eroding IS sovereignty over the city and its surrounding areas street by street.

So what happens next?

The fall of both cities seems inevitable and will be a body blow to an organisation that has previously relied on a sense of constant momentum and success to carry it forward. Earlier losses have been explained as "tests of faith" and a scorched earth policy saw little left standing in cities and towns such as Ramadi and Kobane.

Dabiq, the town that was supposedly where an apocalyptic battle was predicted, which also lends its name to the IS magazine, fell after relatively little fanfare. Now set up against the wide array of enemies the group has accrued, they are in danger of losing the jewels in the crown in Raqqa and Mosul.

IS has a strong brand, dominating both social and traditional media over the past two years

A look into its history shows how the US 2007 "surge" in Iraq, and a campaign of rolling assassinations that targeted its leadership, had the then "Islamic State of Iraq" seemingly down and out. Yet their ability to take advantage of the US's withdrawal from Iraq, the release of members from prisons and the failure of then Prime Minister Maliki to pursue a national project, gave them an opportunity to adapt to new circumstance and flourish.

This adaptability allowed them to subsequently take advantage of the chaos that followed the 2011 uprising in Syria, although the splits between them and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front), show that this hasn't been plain sailing.

Yet adaptability is the essential word and the lessons from previous incarnations in Iraq and Syria show that the group may be able to adapt to a lack of territory through becoming a more virtual organisation.

Considering the number of foreign fighters who have travelled to join the organisation, the prospect of battle-hardened veterans returning home to pursue active campaigns or become sleeper cells, will be having intelligence agencies across Europe and the United States working overtime.

Another potential adaptation technique is therefore, that of mutation

IS has a strong brand, dominating both social and traditional media over the past two years, and even before the battles for Raqqa and Mosul appeared to be inspiring acts of violence in other parts of the world, without having any direct involvement themselves.

Another potential adaptation technique is therefore, that of mutation. While Al-Qaeda was once considered public enemy number one, in the future we could see IS become a different creature entirely. Instead of operating under the black flag at a fixed address, it could become an air traffic controller of radicalisation and inspiration of acts of high profile violence.

Perhaps more interesting in the immediate term, especially after the election of Donald Trump, is what the conventional defeat of the "Caliphate" means for the US-led coalition.

It could become an air traffic controller of radicalisation and inspiration of acts of high profile violence

Defeating IS will in theory trigger the start of a long process of political reconciliation in Iraq, while the Syrian civil war will remain active without the convenient enemy that everybody was against.

Will "Operation: Inherent Resolve" find another terrorist listed group to go after in Syria, will the various actors consolidate behind Prime Minister Abadi's fragile government in Iraq, or will it disband after US leadership takes a different tack under a Trump administration?

The aversion to ground troops from the US or Europe being in the Middle East has led us to a situation where air power and Special Forces are ramped up or scaled down depending on the nature of the challenge at hand.

Critically however, a wider strategic approach to understanding why the threats of terrorism have metastasised in this part of the world, seems to be completely absent.

IS is not an alien actor but rather a product of this history and politics of the region and beyond. In many respects it has been a convenient enemy for states to rally around. But once it has gone, the challenge of what replaces it - and how to chart a post-IS Middle East - remain very real problems indeed. 

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.