The Fall of Raqqa and the Ignominious End of the ISIS Caliphate

History will record that the Islamic State caliphate—a
bizarre pseudo-state founded on illusory goals, created by a global
horde of jihadis, and enforced with perverted viciousness—survived for
three years, three months and some eighteen days. The fall of
Raqqa, the nominal ISIS capital, was proclaimed on Tuesday by the
U.S.-backed militia that spearheaded the offensive, a coalition of
Kurdish and Arab militias advised by U.S. Special Forces. Mopping-up
operations were still going on (especially around the Raqqa stadium,
which ISIS fighters had converted into an arms depot and prison), but
the liberation of Raqqa marked the symbolic demise of the Islamic
State’s rule.

“How far they’ve fallen. It’s a striking contrast to three years ago,
when they planted the flag, in the summer of 2014, and proclaimed God’s
kingdom on Earth had come again—and now they’ve evaporated,” Will
McCants, the author of the best-selling book “The ISIS Apocalypse: The
History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State
,” told me.

“There are other places for ISIS to go and survive, but there’s
something special about Syria and Iraq and the Fertile Crescent,”
McCants, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said. “It’s the theatre
of prophecy. It’s where the apocalyptic drama unfolds. It’s the
heartland of the historic caliphate, and it’s the scene of the final
end-of-times drama, as predicted by Islamic scripture. Nowhere else in
the Islamic world compares with it.”

McCants said that the fall of Raqqa, a city that was once home to more
than two hundred thousand Syrians but is now mostly destroyed, will
weaken the group’s ability to recruit fighters and inspire attacks. “The
fight will go on, and ISIS will morph into an insurgency and may try to
reëstablish another state, but, for now, it’s a crushing blow,” he said.
ISIS put all its chips on creating a state and taking territory as
proof of its divine mandate. Some of its followers now have to have
doubts.“

At its height, the Islamic State was about the size of
Indiana, or the country of Jordan, with eight million people under its
control. ISIS transformed the world of jihadism by recruiting tens of
thousands of followers from five continents—faster, in larger numbers,
and from further corners of the Earth than any other modern extremist
group. The caliphate was formally declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on
June 29, 2014, from a pulpit in the Grand Mosque of Mosul, the largest
city under ISIS control. It, too, was liberated, in July, after a
gruesome nine-month offensive by Iraqi security forces.

ISIS still holds bits and pieces of territory in both countries. But it
no longer rules. Baghdadi, an Islamic scholar who
was detained by
the U.S. military in Iraq for almost a year, in 2004, as prisoner number
US9IZ-157911CI, has not been sighted in public since the unveiling of
his caliphate.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman
for the U.S.-led coalition supporting the campaign against ISIS, said,
“Over all, ISIS is losing in every way. We’ve devastated their networks,
targeted and eliminated their leaders at all levels. We’ve degraded
their ability to finance their operations, cutting oil revenues by
ninety per cent. Their flow of foreign recruits has gone from about
fifteen hundred fighters a month down to near zero today. ISIS in Iraq
and Syria are all but isolated in their quickly shrinking territory.”
Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to
Counter ISIS at the State Department, tweeted that an estimated six
thousand fighters had died in the battle for Raqqa.

Yet the organization is not dead. Nor are all its leaders. Hundreds of
fighters have fled south to regroup in the lawless borderlands of the
Euphrates River Valley between Syria and Iraq. Their zealotry will
endure, in different forms and perhaps under different banners. ISIS also claims some three dozen wilayats, or provinces, spread from Algeria to the Philippines—across North Africa, the Middle East, South
Asia, and Southeast Asia—that have, at various times, pledged loyalty to
the caliphate. Some are dormant. Others are small. All have been
deadly.

The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and
Responses to Terrorism (START) collects data on ISIS bombings,
beheadings, and other slaughters. Last year, the group’s most violent
province was in Libya, where ISIS fighters conducted a hundred and
eighty-three attacks, killing more than three hundred people. In Egypt,
the Sinai province carried out a hundred and fifty attacks; more than
three hundred and seventy people were killed. In Afghanistan, ISIS’s
Khorasan province killed more than eight hundred people last year, in
more than a hundred attacks.

Data may not be the most important barometer of the group’s
strength, however. “The issue is not where they’re strongest in numbers
but where they can destabilize the fastest,” Bill Braniff, the executive
director of START, based at the University of Maryland, told me. That’s
why burgeoning ISIS attacks in Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan are more
worrisome than the death tolls may indicate. The sociopolitical factors
behind the emergence of extremist groups, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, are
important, too.

“When we use an organization as our unit of analysis, we can conclude
that there is an end to the threat,” Braniff said. “But if we look at
movements that have thrived over time—despite the fact that numerous
organizations have come into and out of a movement—we can come todifferent conclusions. If we look at ISIS, it’s the end of [the]
caliphate. But, if you look at the movement, have any of underlying
drivers that produced ISIS been mitigated? The answer is no.”

In other words, the current caliphate may have collapsed, but serious dangers lie ahead,
because the tensions and drivers that produced ISIS loom even larger
today than when it emerged.

“Only a fool would call this a victory,” Hassan Hassan, a co-author of
the best-selling book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” told me. “It’s only
the expulsion of ISIS fighters from a wasteland. It’s not a victory,
not only because of the destruction. It’s also not a victory because
there’s a shameless lack of a political track to supplement the military
track. That’s the Achilles heel of Operation Inherent Resolve. They
don’t have a political vision about what will happen after ISIS.”

Operation Inherent Resolve is the U.S.-led coalition of sixty-nine
nations and four partner organizations that has orchestrated the
military campaign against ISIS and provided air power in both Syria and
Iraq. Since 2014, its lone goal has been to end the caliphate, not to
solve the broader problems that gave rise to ISIS, especially in Syria.
The United States, under both Democratic and Republican Presidents, has
resisted getting militarily involved in Syria’s grisly six-year civil
war.

The U.S. air strikes in Raqqa have taken a devastating toll on the city’s
civilian population and physical infrastructure as well as on ISIS. The
civilian death toll from air strikes is more than a thousand, according
to Syrian activists and international monitors, while much of the
northern part of the city has been destroyed. More than two hundred
thousand Raqqa residents have fled; many now have little to return to.

Ironically, Raqqa was a place where the United States provided early aid
to help build political opposition to the regime of President Bashar
al-Assad after the Arab Uprising, in 2011. The U.S. provided fire
trucks, ambulances, garbage trucks, generators, and other infrastructure
for the local council that emerged to provide alternative rule. When
ISIS swept in, in 2014, it commandeered the American-funded equipment.
Much of it is believed to have been destroyed by U.S. air strikes. Raqqa
will be starting almost from scratch in rebuilding, politically and
physically, at a time when Syria is still engulfed in a civil war.

“You need to turn these areas into something better than ISIS, better
than what people have seen over the past three years. That’s on the
micro level,” Hassan told me. “On the macro level, regardless of what
the U.S. says, there’s no appetite to do something to resolve the Syrian
conflict, with Assad—the core problem.”

Unlike Mosul, which returned to Iraqi sovereignty automatically after
ISIS was defeated, Raqqa will be contested. U.S. officials insist that
the local population—particularly Sunni Muslims—does not want to be
subjected to the rule of the Assad dynasty, which is Alawite. Legally,
however, Raqqa is still part of Syria, and Assad is likely to be backed
in any claim to the area by his powerful Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese
allies.

So the ISIS caliphate may have faced an ignominious defeat, but the
Syrian quagmire is far from over. And that may eventually fuel the
flames of new dissent, angry new forms of opposition, and, potentially,
other manifestations of extremism.

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