After ISIS, What Comes Next?


Nicholas Waddy Associate Professor of History, SUNY Alfred
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On October 17th, U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces in Syria completed their conquest of Raqqa, the erstwhile capital city of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.  As a state, ISIS is more or less finished.  This represents a spectacular reversal from as recently as 2014, when ISIS was expanding rapidly in every direction, and in particular was absorbing large swathes of Iraq – and humiliating the Iraqi Army (an American creation) in the bargain.  At its height, ISIS tyranny affected as many as 8 million people.

ISIS’s lightning-fast rise to power, and its unprecedented and loathsome cruelty, shocked the world.  Now, ISIS’s decline and fall seems to be attracting remarkably little attention.  Nonetheless, it is a watershed development and a historic and welcome victory for American policymakers, including President Trump.  Granted, the wheels were set in motion under President Obama, but Trump’s escalation of the military pressure on ISIS – specifically, his deployment of U.S. special forces and regular ground forces, his decision to arm Kurdish fighters, and his redoubling of airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria – played a significant role in the favorable outcome.  He deserves credit, although naturally, as far as the mainstream media is concerned, he will receive none.

The elimination of ISIS as a “state,” however, does not mean the obliteration of any and all terrorist threats which the organization may pose.  On the contrary, angry and alienated Muslims throughout the Western world may still heed ISIS’s call to arms.  And, insofar as ISIS still maintains a vigorous presence on social media and still receives generous financial support from sympathetic Muslims, it may also retain a capacity to influence the location and nature of terrorist acts.  There is no justification, therefore, for slackening in our concerted efforts to identify and neutralize terrorist threats.  President Trump’s travel bans, for instance, are every bit as necessary now as they were when he took office.  Indeed, the scattering of ISIS personnel in the wake of the annihilation of their “state” may even increase the danger that some may try to migrate to the West.  We must remain vigilant.

In addition to protecting the homeland, the U.S. should seek to consolidate the recent gains we have made in Syria and Iraq, in the sense that large areas of those countries have been liberated from ISIS and are now in the hands of forces friendly to America.  Our watchword in managing this fluid situation in northern Iraq and eastern Syria should be: stability.  It was instability in these regions, caused by the chaotic rebellion against President Assad in Syria, and by the weakness and unpopularity of the (U.S.-installed) Shiite-dominated government of Iraq, that created the power vacuum exploited by ISIS in the first place.  We cannot and must not allow similar conditions to reassert themselves.

In Syria, this means we should abandon the hopelessly unrealistic goal of unseating President Assad.  His forces, backed by Russia, are now in control of most of Syria.  Moreover, with ISIS largely  destroyed, Syrian government troops will presumably undertake new offensives to expand the areas they occupy.  At best, the forces we have sponsored in eastern Syria may carve out part of the country as a functionally autonomous zone.  They certainly will not be marching on Damascus anytime soon.  We should be realistic in working with the Russians and the Syrian government to stabilize Syria, as much as possible.  Frankly, under President Obama, our policy in Syria was incoherent and poorly and feebly executed.  Under President Trump, we have seen a refreshing dose of pragmatism and vigor, but much more needs to be done to deescalate the fighting in Syria and heal the country.

In Iraq, the great fear is that, in the wake of defeating ISIS, Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs will once again fall victim to inter-ethnic, inter-denominational, and factional fighting.  The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has never enjoyed the confidence of Kurds and Sunni Arabs, nor has its administration or security forces ever lived up to the expectations of U.S. policymakers.  We have a wonderful opportunity now, though, given the war weariness of all parties, to help forge a new and genuinely tolerant Iraq that will respect the rights, and advance the interests, of all of its people.  Iraq was, before the U.S. invasion of 2003, although a long way from democracy, a state in which ethnic and religious hatreds were far from overpowering.  It can become a functioning state again, with our calculated support and encouragement.

A good first step, in my estimation, would be to dissuade Iraq’s Kurds from seeking an independent state, which some are inclined to do after the independence referendum held on September 25th.  Nothing good can come from a Kurdish declaration of independence, which would threaten to destabilize not only northern Iraq, but also the Kurdish regions of Syria, Turkey, and Iran.  Now is a time to take stock in Syria and Iraq, to rebuild trust (and infrastructure), and to calm nerves – it is not a time to experiment with provocative new initiatives, like redrawing the map and/or jeopardizing the territorial integrity of sovereign states.

As Americans, we should all rejoice in the defeat of ISIS, an organization which unleashed a whirlwind of violence and intolerance on the peoples of Syria and Iraq, and which briefly threatened to make a “zone of chaos” of the entire world.  Great challenges remain in the Middle East and beyond, however, and many of them frankly are borne of our own blundering.  In future, American policy must become more clear-headed and pragmatic.  If it does, not only will the people of the Middle East have cause to thank us, but the forces of radical Islamic terrorism will be dealt a decisive blow.

Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is an Associate Professor of History in the State University of New York and blogs at: www.waddyisright.com.

Perspectives expressed in op-eds are not those of The Daily Caller.