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The War With ISIS Is Hardly Over—Here’s What Really Matters In The Middle East

By Jacob L. Shapiro

The fight against the Islamic State seems to be going well.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently declared victory in Mosul after the city was finally retaken. The same day, the United States and Russia agreed to a cease fire in southwestern Syria

Later, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was dead, as had been rumored a month ago.

These are welcome developments for the enemies of the Islamic State. But the fight is far from over.

The Win in Mosul Doesn’t Solve Anything

Let’s take a look at each of these events, starting with the liberation of Mosul.

It took nearly nine months to dislodge ISIS from the city despite the fact that Iraq had many more forces and was backed by the US (By comparison, it took IS only two weeks to take Mosul.) The Islamic State simply could not have lasted as long as it did without a fair amount of local support.

For ISIS, Mosul is ultimately a symbolic but tolerable defeat.

The city Iraq has reclaimed is broken. For the first time in history, a Shiite military force has taken over a majority Sunni city. Its population doesn’t trust the central government any more than it trusts the Iran-backed Shiite militias operating west of the city.

And so Iraq’s core problems are unresolved.

The Sunnis hate the Shiites, the Shiites hate the Sunnis, and Iraqi Kurds are trying to break away. Iraq’s sectarian conflict will press on, and jihadists will exploit the conflict as they see fit.

Iraq Has No Desire to Resume the Fight Anytime Soon

Then there are the practical military issues. The battle for Mosul was so bloody that Iraq won’t rush to resume the fight in other ISIS-controlled areas. The US will also have to adjust its strategy if it wants to avoid repeating the mistakes that led to the rise of the Islamic State in the first place.

Meanwhile, Russia and the US seem to have agreed to a cease-fire deal in southwestern Syria. The truth is that Moscow and Washington have been quietly cooperating in Syria for some time.

The coordinated offensives of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian army against ISIS forces a few weeks ago are a sign of their cooperation—a far more important one than a doomed-to-fail cease-fire.

In fact, the agreement is already starting to fray amid recent reports of Syrian army advances.

The Death of al-Baghdadi Is Also Not So Important

It’s possible that al-Baghdadi was killed in a Russian airstrike, as the initial reports claimed.

But groups like the Islamic State are more hydra than snake: Cutting off the head doesn’t kill the body. It just creates new heads. The US forced Osama bin Laden into hiding before it killed him in Pakistan, and yet al-Qaida was largely unaffected by his absence.

There’s no reason to think this will be any different.

That’s because he was playing the long game. Al-Baghdadi almost certainly empowered lieutenants capable of carrying on after his death. The Islamic State has a pretty sophisticated bureaucracy, replete with tax collection, policing activities, and even a public health system.

These institutions are no doubt buckling under the pressure of coalition attacks, but it’s difficult to ignore how organized ISIS has been and how effectively it governed a large territory in Syria and Iraq—all while fighting a multi-front war against stronger enemies.

Many more ISIS leaders will die before the fight is truly over.

What Really Matters

All of this raises an obvious question: If recent developments are not so important, what is?

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the Islamic State is not yet defeated. It still holds defensible territory stretching from Deir el-Zour to Abu Kamal. It still conducts terrorist attacks meant to hurt sectarian groups and recruit new members. It still tries to infiltrate surrounding countries, most notably Jordan and Saudi Arabia. And it still has members who, once militarily “defeated,” can blend in to society undetected.

It’s also important to remember that, as the Islamic State weakens, the regional ethnic and sectarian conflict will worsen.

Anbar province—in which Shiite militias, backed by Iran, are operating in Sunni-majority territory—is a disaster in the making. Syria is still a mostly Sunni Arab country that is governed by Alawites, who practice an offshoot version of Shiite Islam. They are backed by Hezbollah and Iran, which want Bashar Assad to stay in power. Saudi Arabia, a regional Sunni power, wants Assad to be overthrown, as does Turkey.

All these groups set aside their differences to fight a common enemy. Once the common enemy is removed, they will simply be able to fight each other more directly than they once could.

Of course, no one has yet invaded what remains for ISIS territory, and the ethnic conflict in Iraq and Syria is not as bad as it will surely get. But these developments are inevitable in the fight against the Islamic State.

And when dealing with the inevitable, the sexier cease-fires and random deaths don’t matter as much as the mundane. Things like the status of Saudi Arabia’s political economy, the viability of Jordan’s border guards, and the relationships between Shiite militias and Sunni citizens are what really matter.

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