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The illusion of eliminating Daesh

An illustration of Daesh's flag taken on 18 February, 2016 [Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/]
Daesh flag [Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/]

We are in the midst of the battle for Mosul, the plans to liberate Al-Raqqa and Turkey's preparations for the next stage of its "Euphrates Shield" operation by entering the town of Al-Bab. This means that Daesh will be challenged in its three key strongholds in Syria and Iraq. In all of this it seems to me that talk about eliminating the extremist movement is an unjustified exaggeration; something closer to an illusion than a practical reality.

I'm not talking about the military aspect of the drive against Daesh, but the broader perspective of facing the group in a manner that goes beyond the physical fighting, although even the military offensive faces many obstacles and challenges. It is true to say that the power of the group has been exaggerated because its presence and expansion has served the interests of a number of parties, but estimates that the battle of Mosul will be over within days or a few weeks are also an exaggeration fuelled by the rapid progress on the ground during the early days, in addition to the publicity.

The different nature of the sides participating in the operation, and those wishing to do so, poses challenges to its progress and results on the ground, especially that they have different goals and agendas, with interests which intersect but priorities that don't. These challenges include coordination between the various sides; arranging priorities; guaranteeing that all sides commit to the plan in place and don't go beyond the agreed limits; preventing confrontation among them; preventing sectarian friction; and reducing the number of refugees as much as possible and providing for their needs. It cannot be guaranteed that it will be a quick operation with positive results, as Daesh is defending a key stronghold and has mastered the art of fighting, the use of civilians as human shields, suicide bombing and car bombs.

These challenges are very important, and I believe that they remain part of the considerations which I mentioned earlier (before the end of the recent advances on the ground). However, they are not what I mean when I talk about the illusion of eliminating Daesh, because defeating the group and getting it out of Mosul is one thing and talking about eliminating it as an ideology and an organised group is something else completely.

It is no secret that Daesh does not have a strict structural leadership or strong centralisation in managing day-to-day affairs. Joining the group can be as simple as a pledge of allegiance from afar; it does not need direct contact. Hence, defeating the group in its key strongholds and pursuing or even killing its leaders does not necessarily mean eliminating it.

What's more important is related to the ideology and narrative of the movement, both of which have been accepted by many young people. Although some were keen on limiting the Daesh phenomenon to strict ideology or Islamic heritage and the like, the reasons for the emergence of the group and young people joining it are numerous and interlinked. They include political oppression, economic crises and the absence of social justice, and do not end with foreign occupation, foreign interference, sectarian tension or the absence of authentic reference points.

When we look at the "coalition" in the battle for Mosul, we can see those who were the most obviously important cause of the emergence of Daesh; they are not, therefore, people who can be trusted to confront the group. There are foreign states that have long occupied regional countries and killed their people, along with sectarian groups which threaten to kill the spiritual descendants of the killers of the Prophet's grandson Hussein; this threat was not aimed solely at Daesh, but the people of Mosul as well. There are also oppressive and corrupt regimes and military groups seeking to prove themselves and impose their presence, as well as regional countries seeking to expand their territory, influence and control. More dangerous is the fact that all of these conflicting sides want a share of the cake at the end of the battle, keeping those with genuine rights out of the whole equation and thus perpetuating injustice and turning them into permanent victims.

In short, trying to approach a very complicated phenomenon such as Daesh solely from a military perspective is going to fail; it will only postpone problems by managing rather than eliminating them, all to someone else's advantage, as has happened so far. The simplest rules of medicine, politics and logic say that controlling outcomes requires the causes of the problems to be treated first and foremost otherwise the issue in question will continue in other forms and may come back even worse than before.

Without addressing the many issues that led to the emergence of Daesh, we cannot talk about eliminating it. The group can be weakened militarily but it will only be a temporary respite; its foreign fighters will not go back to their countries and its fighters from Syria and Iraq will stay in their countries waiting for another opportunity. And just as there has always been a "development" in the ideology and practice of these organisations — from jihadist groups to Al-Qaeda and now Daesh — these fighters will wait, along with many marginalised, oppressed young men suffering from injustice and exclusion, only to come back at the right moment more vicious and more brutal than ever.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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