June 30, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Caliphate: Two Years On
The June 29, 2014 announcement by the so-called Islamic State that it had established a caliphate in its territory in Iraq and Syria made the terrorist group an unprecedented magnet for foreign fighters and supporters. It added a sense of history, adventure, and gravitas—however delusional—to the decisions of tens of thousands of people across the world who wanted to be a part of a phenomenon unique in its branding and brutality.
Over the past two years, the West has focused on this phenomenon: the persistent and rising threat of attacks such as those in Istanbul, Paris, Tunis, Brussels, San Bernardino, and Orlando, altering policies, laws, and tactics. As the Islamic State enters its third year as a self-proclaimed caliphate, this phenomenon—in which the Islamic State inspires people around the world to act in its name—has completely detached itself from the physical group. This threat to the West will remain, and perhaps grow, as the group suffers increasing losses on the ground.
But to the millions of Syrians and Iraqis who experience the Islamic State less as a phenomenon and more as a daily existential threat, the announcement of a caliphate was the weary culmination of a long-term corrosion of governance and stability. Life in Raqqa, Mosul, Fallujah, and many other cities and villages was dreadful in the years before the announcement and remains dreadful two years on. Only in the West did the events of June 2014 come as a surprise.
In the two years since the Islamic State's announcement, the group’s fortunes have waned. During his June 28 testimony before a congressional committee, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk stated that the Islamic State had not had a clear victory in over a year, and had experienced massive losses in both Iraq and Syria. While the group has fought stubbornly, it has not been able to muster defenses capable of holding off opposing forces for more than a few weeks. In part, this is a recognition that the Islamic State was never as strong as it claimed to be, but that its opponents—such as the Iraqi army—were simply much weaker. That equation has since shifted in the past two years, and is now in far more favor of the anti-Islamic State coalition. The Islamic State has little hope of holding out against well-equipped and well-led encircling forces.
It is more likely than not, given the fall of Fallujah and the imminent fall of Manbij in Syria, that both Mosul and Raqqa will fall sooner than expected. As fearsome as the group appears in its choreographed and hyper-produced videos, it remains a struggling proto-state, with no resupply lines and shrinking territorial control. It is still uncertain, however, whether or not the retaking of Mosul and Raqqa can be turned into lasting victories for the cities' inhabitants. The scale of reconstruction needed for war-torn societies in Syria and Iraq dwarfs the military effort used to reclaim them.
As Syria and Iraq mark the second anniversary of the Islamic State, there is reason to hope that a third will not come; however, there is little reason to hope that the group will not re-emerge in some shape or form in the future. The scale of the problem in Iraq—and, even more so in Syria—is beyond comparison and beyond the current capabilities of local, regional, and international actors to resolve.
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