This week we begin a two part series on a post-ISIS Middle East. In Part I we look at "The Middle East after ISIS." Next week, in Part II, we examine whether a post-ISIS Middle East can be stabilized and what role, if any, the U.S. and its allies can play.
By all accounts the Islamic State caliphate is teetering. The capture of Palmyra, although highly touted for its archeological ruins, was also an important military objective. The city lies along the M 20 Route to Deir ez-Zur, further east on the Euphrates River. The capture of Deir ez Zur would largely divide Islamic State (IS) territory in Syria from that in Iraq, further splintering the Islamic State. Raqqa and Mosul, arguably the most important cities, politically and economically, in Islamic State are slowly but inexorably being surrounded by a military noose. Dabiq, a city of critical psychological importance in Islamic State's messianic apocalyptic narrative, finds itself in a similar situation.
Technically, Islamic State consists of 30 different wilayahs (provinces), 20 of which are in Iraq and Syria, and 10 are outside of its core territory. It no longer controls all 20 of the provinces in Iraq and Syria and some, like the wilayah of Baghdad and Kirkuk in Iraq or Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, it has never actually controlled. The Islamic State caliphate would therefore survive in the 10 remaining wilayahs, even if the core territory in Syria and Iraq was recaptured.
Moreover, it is likely that new wilayahs will be created in the future. The fifth edition of the Islamic State's propaganda magazine Dabiq, titled "Remaining and Expanding," outlined the procedure for creating new wilayahs in the Islamic State. To establish a new province a Jihadist group must organize themselves into a single, unified body, and then publically declare their allegiance to the Emir of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They must nominate a Wali (governor), subject to the approval of al-Baghdadi, a Shura Council to provide religious leadership, and devise a military strategy to secure territorial control of the wilayah and to establish Islamic State's version of Sharia law. Once these conditions have been met and the Emir's approval is secured; the new province would be recognized as part of the Islamic State caliphate and receive support from the leadership in al-Raqqa.
This was also the edition where Islamic State announced the creation of new Islamic State wilayahs in Sinai, Libya, Yemen, Algeria and the Arabian Peninsula. In later editions of Dabiq, IS acknowledged that it has supporters in East Turkestan (the Chinese region of Xinjiang), as well as in Indonesia and the Philippines, and that at some point wilayahs would be declared there as well. Significantly, once a wilayah is declared, other jihadist groups that refuse to recognize the new province, swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi, or accept the authority of the Islamic State Caliphate, would be considered illegitimate.
Nonetheless, the loss of its core territory in Iraq and Syria would be a significant blow to Islamic State. The caliphate might "officially" survive in the remaining provinces, although most are not really controlled by Islamic State affiliates and largely exist in name only, but many of the trappings of a political state would be lost. Significantly, outside of the core territory, there is only one city, Derna in Libya, which is actually controlled by Islamic State. The role of Islamic state as an insurgency in Iraq and Syria, and as an international jihadist movement elsewhere would, however, also continue.
Such an outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion. Even the most optimistic scenario places it at least 18 to 24 months in the future. Much can happen elsewhere, especially in North Africa in general and Libya in particular, during that interval that could either accelerate the destruction of Islamic State or significantly mitigate the consequences of the loss of its current territory in Iraq and Syria.
More importantly, what would a post-Islamic State Middle East look like? The simple answer is probably not a whole lot different.
From West Africa to the Hindu Kush of Central Asia, the Islamic world is in a state of crisis. Not only does this crisis encompass virtually the entire Middle East, but it extends well beyond it to include North Africa and West Africa, including the Sahel fringe of sub-Saharan Africa, all the way to the Indian Ocean, as well as large portions of central Asia, and in particular Afghanistan and Pakistan.
At the core of that crisis is a loss of political legitimacy that is undermining, and in some cases outright destroying, the topography of nation states that were established as a consequence of the post-World War I partition of the Ottoman Empire and the later mid-twentieth century European decolonization in Africa and Asia. Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Libya are all failed states. There are many more across north and central Africa on the brink.
It's unclear what a post-Islamic State Iraq and Syria will look like. In the case of Syria, it is clear that the Assad family dominated Syria of old will never return. It's likely that some kind of autonomous or semi-autonomous Kurdish state, the so called Rojava, will emerge along Syria's northern border with Turkey. A development that may help stabilize Syria, but prove to be destabilizing to Turkey's relationship with its own Kurdish citizens and by extension to Turkey itself.
On March 17, leaders of Rojava's three cantons declared themselves a federal region within Syria. Damascus, Ankara and Washington all condemned the declaration--possibly the only time during the Syrian Civil War that all three governments actually agreed on anything. It is hard to see, however, how some kind of de facto Kurdish state will not emerge in Syria.
The disposition of Syria's Sunni inhabitants remains to be seen. Even if some kind of federated Sunni state was to emerge in Syria, it is likely that a jihadist insurgency against the Assad government would continue. At best, the Syrian Civil War will move from a high intensity conflict to a lower intensity one, but the fighting will most likely remain.
The situation in Iraq will probably be similar. The Kurdish Regional government in Erbil has stopped short of declaring its independence, although privately it has made it clear to American diplomats that independence is its ultimate goal. It has certainly been acting in an increasingly autonomous manner. Ultimately, Erbil's autonomy will depend on the extent it is successful in getting control over the export of the oil it produces. Such control will likely involve the cooperation and support of the Turkish government. Ankara's willingness to lend its support will be shaped by Turkey's conflicting desire to increase its influence in Iraq, while at the same time minimizing the influence of an autonomous Rojava.
Dealing with a Sunni insurgency in Iraq will ultimately revolve around a political solution to the status of Iraq's Sunni citizens. Iraq has been reluctant to organize and arm a Sunni militia to repeat the success that the American sponsored Awakening Councils had in containing jihadist activity in Iraq's Sunni triangle for fear that such a militia would become the core of an armed Sunni opposition to the Baghdad government.
At the same time it has failed to present a credible plan for a meaningful political role for Iraq's Sunnis. It has turned a blind eye to the Shia militia driven, ongoing ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad, or the Shia militia reprisals against Sunnis. Without a political solution, jihadist violence in the Sunni triangle and terrorist attacks in the Shiite areas of Iraq will continue. The intensity of the violence may diminish somewhat, but it will not go away.
The petro-monarchies of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula have maintained some semblance of stability through a combination of financial largess to its citizens, a highly sophisticated internal security apparatus, and the combination of the latest advanced weaponry buttressed by American security guarantees.
All of these elements have been financed by the region's oil wealth. A source of financing, which in the new reality of sub-$50 per barrel oil, will be difficult to maintain. Couple that with the resurrection of historic Persian imperialism, this time in the guise of defending the rights of downtrodden Shia minorities, and in the case of Bahrain and the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia outright majorities, and you have all of the elements to create yet another vortex of instability in the Middle East. That does not mean that the petro-monarchies of the region are poised to topple domino-like into chaos. They may well survive for another generation. It does mean, however, that the trend in the region is toward more instability and chaos not less.
The situation in northern and western Africa is decidedly grimmer. The Libyan Civil War has become a maelstrom that has not only destroyed Libya as a functioning nation state but has sucked in jihadists from though out Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. It's estimated that there are approximately 10,000 foreign jihadists in Libya. Between a third and a half of them are affiliated with Islamic State, and the balance with other jihadist organizations there. Roughly 80 percent of those jihadists are drawn from Africa. Regardless of what happens in Libya, these jihadists will eventually return home and become a new source of instability. This is especially true of Tunisia, which has supplied between one quarter and one third of all of the foreign jihadists in Libya.
Libya's African neighbors cannot afford the sophisticated weaponry or internal security apparatus of the petro-monarchies. Only two countries have any appreciable quantities of oil or gas--Nigeria and Algeria. In both countries that oil wealth, relative to the size of their populations, will not allow the kind of financial largess that has bought a modicum of stability in the Gulf. Most of the nations in the Saharan and sub-Saharan Sahel zone are already fragile to begin with and will be hard pressed to deal with the long-term challenge of expanding jihadist activity within their borders.
Moreover, with the exception of France, there is little appetite for Western military intervention in this region. Even the French interventions, limited as they were, in Mali, Chad, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast and Djibouti, required varying degrees of American logistical support. Currently France also has additional troops stationed in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso as part of Operation Burkhane designed to disrupt the flow of jihadists across the Sahara. Whether Paris has an appetite for an extended military deployment in its former African colonies remains to be seen.
Central Asia presents a mixed picture. The "stans," the former Soviet Central Asian Republics, are by comparison relatively stable. All of them, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgzstan and Tajikistan, are dealing with varying degrees of jihadist insurgencies and all four are directly or indirectly affected by low oil prices, either because they are significant energy producers like Kazakhstan, or because their economics are closely tied to Russia's and they feel the effects of a deteriorating Russian economy.
Moreover, Moscow is engaged in what is increasingly seen at the Kremlin as a potentially existential conflict with China to retain its influence in the Central Asian region. Control of the oil and gas pipelines that bring the regions hydrocarbons to Europe gives the Kremlin a great deal of influence here and increases its leverage with its European customers. It also allows it to ensure that the region's energy resources do not compete with or undermine Russia's own energy exports, either presently to Europe, and in the future to China and the rest of Asia.
More significantly, the region is flanked by two hotbeds of jihadist activity--the Caucasus in the west and Afghanistan and Pakistan on the east. Russia fought two wars to control jihadist activity in Chechnya, and the threat of jihadist sponsored violence in Syria and Iraq spilling into the Caucasus is judged to be a major risk at the Kremlin. Significantly, after Tunisia, the next biggest source of foreign jihadists in Syria, are from the Caucasus.
The eastern flank of central Asia is not much better. For now there is little prospect of defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. As long as Western military assistance is maintained at current levels, it is likely that the Afghan government will retain control of the cities even if it steadily loses ground in the countryside to the Taliban. Russia has cultivated close ties to the Tajik community in northern Afghanistan. It has supplied military and financial assistance to the Tajik dominated Afghan Northern Alliance that is believed, by Western intelligence agencies, to be in the range of some $200 million a year.
If the Afghan government were too collapse, Russia would be expected to support a Tajik state in northern Afghanistan as a buffer between the "stans" and a potentially Taliban dominated government in Kabul. Iran seems to have a similar strategy with the predominantly Shiite Hazara in western Afghanistan. Should that eventuality happen, Afghanistan would join the steadily growing roster of failed and dismembered states.
The imminent failure of Pakistan as a coherent state has been predicted many times. Almost half of Pakistan's territory is based on the spurious legitimacy of the Durand agreement between Afghanistan and Great Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. The Pakistani government's reliance on jihadist organizations organized, funded and largely directed by its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) as a vehicle for extending its influence in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and as a form of proxy warfare against India, is a source of political instability throughout central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Moreover, it is not entirely clear to what extent the civilian government in Islamabad can effectively control Pakistan's military or its intelligence agency.
In Pakistan's case, it would be the first failed state since the Soviet Union, to possess nuclear weapons. In the case of the USSR, the nuclear proliferation consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union, were largely contained. At least that's what Western intelligence agencies believe. That's probably true since if a terrorist organization had successfully diverted a Soviet nuclear weapon the odds are that it would have been used by now.
In the event of the failure of the Pakistani state, however, it is hard to be sanguine that the United States would have the same level of success in securing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. To suggest that Pakistan is on the verge of falling part would be overly alarmist. Here too, the Pakistani regime could well muddle through for another generation, but here also the trend is toward more chaos and instability in the future, not less. Historians will long debate whether Islamic jihadism was a consequence of the crisis of political legitimacy in the Middle East or its cause. The answer is probably a little of both. The question of whether American sponsorship of the Afghan mujahedeen ultimately metastasized into the current phenomenon of international jihadism will be equally debated.
Privately, Russian diplomats are fond of pointing out to their American counterparts that it was the West that ultimately released the jihadist genie into the world and that today we are paying the price for creating the Afghan mujahedeen a generation ago. American diplomats, at least those versed in Cold War history, are quick to reply that modern terrorism in the Middle East and Western Europe, from the PLO to Bader Meinhoff, was after all invented, organized and funded by the Soviet KGB. In the long run, like most academic debates, it really won't matter much anyway, nor will it change the reality that we face today.
Next week we will examine whether a post-Islamic State Middle East can be stabilized and what role the U.S. and its allies can play.