Asia Watch

West Asia, post-IS: On wresting Raqqa

The capture of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, by U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab troops this week is a crushing blow to the group.

Oct 20, 2017
The capture of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, by U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab troops this week is a crushing blow to the group. The IS, which once controlled territories as large as the U.K., is now concentrated in some pockets in Iraq and Syria. It lost Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to government troops earlier this year. With the loss of Raqqa to the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), its self-proclaimed “Caliphate” is now practically over. The last major population centre the group has control over is eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zor, which is also increasingly under attack by Russia-backed Syrian government troops. In both Iraq and Syria, though different actors battled the IS, the strategy to counter the group was almost similar. 
 
In Iraq, government troops were joined by Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militias in ground battles while the U.S. provided air cover. In Syria, the SDF, with cover by U.S. aircraft cover, and Syrian government forces aided by the Russian Air Force opened multiple fronts against the IS. Under pressure from all sides, the group finally crumbled. Its high-tech propaganda, which telecast beheadings and mass shootings, is now absent. Its organisational network is a shambles. Its top leaders are either dead or on the run. But the war is not over yet.
 
The IS was originally an insurgent group that transformed itself into a proto-state with a global appeal. That state is militarily destroyed, but IS, the movement, is far from over. As al-Qaeda in Iraq, the IS’s predecessor, retreated to the deserts and regrouped during 2008-2011, the IS could also retreat to the lawless parts of Iraq and Syria and wait for the right moment to strike back. With terror attacks in faraway locations such as Paris and Brussels and lone wolf attacks by individuals inspired by its world view, the IS has already proved it could continue its lethal campaign even while under military pressure. And the geopolitics of West Asia suggests that the troubled, chaotic countries from where the IS emerged are likely to continue being troubled in the near future. 
 
Till now a common enemy had brought them together. With the IS challenge fading, cracks are visible in the coalition. Iraqi government troops and the Kurdish Peshmerga — which fought together against the IS in Mosul — are now fighting each other in Kirkuk. Even in Syria, once the IS is defeated the regime could turn its focus on the Kurdish autonomous region. Turkey too has raised strong opposition to Washington arming the Kurds. Such voices will only grow in strength with the Kurds gaining increasing prominence in the battlefield. Now the question is whether the stakeholders have a larger vision for a post-IS West Asia in which the fundamental issues that helped the rise of groups like the IS can be addressed. Mere military victories do not usher in long-term changes.
 
The Hindu, October 20, 2017

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