Is this the end of Daesh (ISIS)? It is difficult to see how the group could return after the recapturing of Raqqa and Mosul, but its quick rise and apparent fall has plagued the region with horrific crimes and mass destruction while planting the seeds of sectarian strife. It can be argued that the chief strategic outcome of the existence of the group was that the gates have been left wide open for global and major regional powers to return to the Middle East and become more openly active.
Al-Qaeda has always avoided providing geographic targets — which can be attacked easily — relying instead on the difficulty of defeating its ideology. For that reason, and in spite of their rivalry, the older of the two groups warned Daesh about the perils of declaring a territorial caliphate. Daesh controlled more than 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq in 2014, from the Mediterranean coast to south of Baghdad. However, with a massive transformation of the maps of Syria and Iraq, things look quite different today.
It took almost three years for the forces lined up against Daesh — the Syrian regime, supported by Russian forces, Iranian-backed militias and Hezbollah; the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the US; the Free Syrian Army, backed by Turkey and Qatar; Kurdistan’s Peshmerga fighters; the Iraqi armed forces; and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), backed by Iran and Iranian militias, in addition to the coalition of 69 countries — to halt this calamity and put an end to the existence of the so-called caliphate.
The demise of Daesh, as well as its establishment, rise and expansion, all carry the clear fingerprints of regional and global powers. During the US occupation of Iraq a few years ago, Daesh was nothing but a small offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) founded by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. After the assassination of Zarqawi, new leader Abu Ayyub Al-Masri announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006. Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi led the terrorist organisation until his death and the advent of the new, better-known leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2010. It took Baghdadi three years to absorb the Al-Qaeda backed militant group in Syria, Jabhat Al-Nusra (or Al-Nusra Front) and to call their combined forces the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Daesh, ISIL or ISIS). The organisation decided to withdraw its allegiance from the parent terrorist organisation, Al-Qaeda, and the latter renounced ties to Daesh after months of infighting with Al-Nusra Front. Daesh expanded and was able to overrun large swathes of land swiftly in Syria and Iraq.
In my opinion, the turning point in the life cycle of Daesh was an incident at the infamous US-designed Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq. A suspicious mass jailbreak of some 500 convicted senior members of Al-Qaeda (who had all received death sentences) took place in June 2013. According to many observers, this escape from a supposedly highly-security prison produced the backbone for the surge in Daesh operations. A few months after the jailbreak, Daesh was able to capture one-third of Iraq, and less than one year later, in June 2014, it took control of Mosul and Tikrit.
The conquest of Mosul posed a dilemma. Iraq’s second-largest city was guarded by 60,000 security officers, including 30,000 trained soldiers (two divisions) and 30,000 federal police officers. On the other side, the number of Daesh attackers was estimated at between 800–1,500 insurgents. In other words, official Iraqi forces outnumbered Daesh fighters by more than 15 to 1. To add insult to injury, the battle of Mosul lasted for just six days. Baghdad could easily have dispatched further divisions and artillery, and called on air support from the US and others. The fall of Iraq’s oil-rich city of Mosul, which had more than $400 million in cash in its coffers, appears unequivocally to have been a simple handover to Daesh in all but name.
There is no explanation for all of this apart from that the expansion and contraction of Daesh was orchestrated. Consider, for example, the deployment of Hezbollah Shia militants in Syria. Lebanon’s Hezbollah has been classified as a terrorist organisation by many Western powers and even by a number of Arab countries. Israel also views Hezbollah and its forces as a threat. Nevertheless, Hezbollah was able to deploy thousands of troops from Lebanon to Syria and to cross an international border with no serious reaction or criticism.
Similarly, little attention has been paid to the fact that tens of thousands of foreign fighters found their way smoothly into Iraq and Syria to fight for Daesh, while almost every army and intelligence agency on the planet with all of their satellite technology were watching. At a press conference on 17 October last year, US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition, said that the flow of foreign Daesh recruits had gone from about 1,500 fighters a month down to nearly zero. This fact alone raises many concerns over the potential role of certain regional and global powers in easing the entry and exit of Daesh militants.
According to US assessments, 40,000 foreign fighters had joined Daesh by 2014. Assuming that the number of locals (fighters from Iraq, Syria and neighbouring countries) is at least close to that number, Daesh had at least 70,000 to 80,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. However, recent numbers have shown that in the two biggest cities – Mosul and Raqqa – there were no more than 2,000 dead bodies of Daesh fighters, and the remnants of the group in Iraq and Syria can’t be more than 15,000. Were the remaining 65,000 killed? No. Sound logic tells us that either the US exaggerated Daesh’s manpower in order to magnify the group’s danger, or foreign recruits were helped to escape.
By the same token, one might argue that US Special Forces’ airdrops in Deir Ez-Zor a few months ago were undertaken to evacuate agents and Daesh loyalists before the arrival of the Russians and their allies. Russia has recently accused the Americans of conspiring with Daesh to take over the eastern areas of the city of Deir Ez-Zor and the River Euphrates before the Syrian regime and its allies could get there. In fact, the occupation of Al-Omar oil field by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces before the arrival of the Syrian regime troops, even though the latter were closer, raises a lot of doubts, especially when considering the qualms of Sergey Lavrov regarding the withdrawal of Daesh from the province of Al-Hasakah for the benefit of the Americans.
Strategically, one can say that Daesh and the slogan of fighting terrorism gave useful cover to many countries: America’s return to Syria and Iraq; Russia’s intervention in Syria; Iran’s official presence in Syria and Iraq; and the activities of other regional powers, including Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. The prolonged existence of a Daesh pseudo-state served the interests of intervening powers perfectly. Iraq’s and Syria’s military and resources were weakened; the capabilities of Shia fighters (Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps) and Sunni militants (Daesh, Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra Front) were depleted; the spheres of influence among the various powers were redesigned; dependency on foreign powers for military and political support was extended; and, finally, the resources − mainly oil − of the region were exploited and abused. According to several reports, Daesh’s main revenue came from oil production and smuggling, and oil trading included secret deals between Daesh and other major players, including the Syrian government.
To sum up, it is my contention that the chaos and anarchy that resulted from the presence of Daesh was, in essence, supported by regional and global powers. Each of these players was seeking to expand and capitalise on their intervention in terms of a long-term military presence and economic benefits. Furthermore, the threat of Daesh has not vanished. If the organisation has proven anything at all over the past decade, it is that it has the ability to recruit new members, and failed and fragile states constitute fertile environments for terrorist organisations and radicals to regroup and expand.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.