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Raqqa has little to do with the end of Daesh

The remains of a mosque after being hit by airstrikes in Raqqa, Syria [file photo]
The remains of the Hinni Mosque, seen after being hit by Syrian regime airstrikes against Daesh, in Raqqa, Syria on November 25, 2014 [Anadolu Agency]

The “fall” of Aleppo and the recent Berlin terror attack have triggered a wide number of articles mainly focused on Europe’s security and the future of the Syrian proxy war. Most of these publications contend that the terror threat to Europe won’t end until Raqqa – Daesh’s de facto capital – falls. As argued by French historian Jean-Pierre Filiu: “As long as Raqqa stands as the operational command center for ISIL [Daesh] terror attacks, Europe will be struck again and again”.

Almost six years after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, symptoms, causes and solutions are still often conflated. Indeed, Daesh’s future can only be partially connected to Raqqa: its long-term features will likely be decided thousands of kilometres away from there.

From an ideological perspective, Daesh’s end will never be fully accomplished without addressing the Wahhabi’s legacy and the modern Saudi identity (the second largest number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are Saudis). Unsurprisingly, Daesh continues to distribute copies of the texts written by Wahhabism’s founder Muhammad Ibn Al-Wahhab in the areas of Iraq and Syria under its control, and draws on many of his most influential teachings.

The modern Saudi identity can be associated with two main components. The first one is linked to Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab and the dynamics through which his radical “puritan” views were adopted by Muhammad ibn Saud in the mid-eighteenth century. The second relates to King Abdulaziz, which, in the 1920s, institutionalised the original Wahhabi vision through the establishment of the state. Daesh’s rising is perceived by a relevant percentage of Saudis as a return to the true origins of the Saudi-Wahhab project.

From a more practical and operative perspective, Daesh’s future will be largely decided in the Tunisian peripheries, from where the single largest group of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are originally from. As Shams Talbi, a 55-year-old man from Kasserine explained to me: “Many young people in our area consider ISIS [Daesh] a means to regain their dignity.”

Until the economic and social integration of marginalised areas such as Kasserine (and others in the whole region) are viewed as key to the country’s democratic progress, a growing number of young Tunisians (and others) will look to criminal groups like Daesh as socioeconomic equalisers.

Daesh’s future will continue to have much to do also with the suburbs in France, a country in which 70 per cent of the prison population is Muslim and from where the largest contingent of European foreign fighters come from.

As noted by William McCants and Christopher Meserole, France is one of two countries in Europe (Belgium is the second) to ban the full veil in its public schools and is the only country in Western Europe (together with Belgium) not to gain the highest rating for democracy in the Polity score data. France’s aggressive approach toward secularism, underpinned by the impression that a person cannot be part of mainstream society without being secular, pushes alienated Muslims in Europe towards isolation, lending a hand to extremist recruiters.

“Finally, Daesh’s criminal acts will survive the fall of Raqqa (perhaps under new forms) until the policies implemented by a number of countries – who perceive oppressive regimes such as those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt as part of the solution rather than part of the problem – are exposed and tackled.

As one Israeli ex-general exclaimed to former Israeli Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren: “Why won’t Americans face the truth? To defend Western freedom, they must preserve Middle Eastern tyranny.”

Raqqa’s fall will mark a major success against terrorism but won’t be enough to defeat these approaches, nor the humus that fuels Daesh.

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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