ISIS is one of many symptoms of the broken contract between autocratic governments and their people. To contextualize the ISIS threat, between 2012 and 2017, ISIS was responsible for less than 30 percent of terrorist attacks in Iraq and Syria, i.e. ISIS is one of many threats, but in 2014 came to be considered a primary threat because it was attracting thousands of foreign fighters and rapidly taking control of territory that traversed the Syria – Iraq border. ISIS has since lost most of its territory but remains capable of counteroffensives (e.g. in Suweida and Deir Ezzor in Syria) and insurgencies (e.g. in Baghdad and the disputed territories of Iraq).
Many observers question why it is taking so long to defeat the remaining pockets of ISIS, suggesting that it is in US interests for ISIS to survive. The counterarguments are that ISIS has more freedom of movement between territories controlled by different forces; ISIS sympathizers and relatives, including those in high positions, enable ISIS to operate within or outside Sunni Arab administrative and tribal structures; the remaining ISIS fighters are hard-core and use all means, including human shields, tunnels, fog and sandstorms to counterattack; the US-led coalition attempts to minimize civilian casualties and the majority of SDF fighting in Deir Ezzor are poorly trained local Sunni Arabs. Possibly all and more factors have some validity, but unless there are changes to the political and economic status quo, ISIS or an offshoot has enough economic, military, political and social networks to remain a threat for years to come.
The West has ‘Middle East fatigue’, yet what is happening in the Middle East impacts Europe, Africa
The Kurd-led Syrian Democratic Council has asked these countries to take them back, but most countries are reluctant to do so because of challenges in identifying, prosecuting, deracializing and reintegrating them and fearing that prisons will become recruitment centers. Instead, Human Rights Watch claims to have evidence that the US has transferred at least five foreign ISIS fighters, including an Australian national, Ahmed Merhi, from northern Syria to Iraq, where they will likely face torture, a summary trial
The ISIS threat is also generational: 25 percent of all foreign ISIS-affiliated individuals are women and minors. In Iraq, ISIS wives are being executed without evidence they committed a crime, other than to marry a member of ISIS. Many thousands of children have been brainwashed by ISIS and other extremists, with ISIS children living in camps and orphanages, or fending for themselves after their ISIS parents have been killed, imprisoned, or if their Yezidi mother 1 is forced to abandon them.
But ISIS is not the only group that aspires to a Sunni Arab caliphate, given Islamism has replaced socialism and pan-Arabism as a geopolitical tool. Many non-state militias have the same aspiration, among them between 44,000 and 71,000 radicalized militants, including 20,000 foreigners, in northern Syria along with their families, face the prospect of doing Turkey’s bidding, and/or surviving the wrath of Assad. Competing with them is a third group – the tens of thousands of pro-regime Shia militants in Syria, foreigners among them, some of whom are being given land in former opposition strongholds.
Such large numbers of disparate non-state militias in Syria and Iraq that answer to individual commanders that aspire to power, and that frequently fight each other, along with the officially recognized, autonomous IMIS force in Iraq that nominally answers to a National Security Council, and its mentor, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that answers to Iran’s supreme leader, pose significant threats to national and regional stability and transformations.
The United States, Russia
This has led Russia, Turkey
Meanwhile, Russia and China have taken advantage of the vacuum in US strategic leadership. Russia has expanded its military, economic and diplomatic footprint from Libya to India, via Europe. In Syria, Russia has hijacked political negotiations so that the UN does Russia’s bidding, for example, in working on Russia’s constitutional committee, only to be told by the Assad regime that UN input is unwelcome. In November, Russia proposed that the US give Iran sanction relief in return for Iran withdrawing the IRGC Quds force and its foreign proxies from Syria. This transaction differs from the US’ transactional approach because it is multilateral and focused, but the US rejected it. Russia is expanding its oil and gas interests in Iraq and
In 2016, China became the largest direct investor in the Middle East ($30 billion compared to US’ $7 billion), and in 2017, the largest exporter to Turkey. China even has a consulate in Erbil and since 2009 Chinese state-owned oil companies like Sinopec have purchased Western oil companies operating in the KRI. China would like Turkey and the Middle East to be part of its One Belt One Road initiative related to the development of infrastructure, trade and energy projects. Unlike many countries, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and the Gulf States can afford the Chinese government loans on offer, which come without upfront political demands.
One US response to the expansion of Russian and Chinese investment is to interest Gulf States and the US private sector to invest in Iraq and Syria, the latter encouraged by the establishment of the US International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) in October. The IDFC will allow more flexible lending practices and doubles the existing lending ceiling to $60 billion for private investors, yet unless there is an internationally supported framework, private sector involvement could increase state nepotism, corruption