It's not likely that the defeat of Daesh in Mosul is going to mean the end of the group itself. So long as the political conditions for radicalism and sympathy for Daesh's ideology exists, territorial defeats can not eradicate the group.
As the successful conclusion to the US-led international coalition bombardment of —albeit at the cost of hundreds of Iraqi civilian lives—comes into sight, the international media have fallen prey to the belief that ISIS (Daesh) is on the verge of obliteration.
It is true that over recent months the group has lost vast amounts of territory as well as power in Iraq. However, the territorial defeat of ISIS does not mean the end of the group. It would be naive to imagine that ISIS could be exterminated in such a short period of time. The group has new plans for the future. In addition, it is still effective at reaching out to its sympathizers due to its ideology, as well as political grievances and further politicization of sectarianism in Iraq. All in all, the Sunni identity crisis is one of the biggest problems the country has.
The reason the group is now losing vast amounts of territory is simply that the international coalition is acting in a more coordinated way but the factors behind the rise of ISIS in Iraq are still present. The group's territorial retreat does not necessarily mean the end of the group. For this reason, the current situation cannot be understood without taking the wider political situation in Iraq into consideration.
ISIS has been losing power inside Iraq
According to London-based analysis firm IHS Markit, ISIS has lost more than 60 percent of its territory. Moreover, with the war in Syria, ISIS has become a more international organization due to its rhetoric of jihad. At the time of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, precursors ISIS such as Al Qaeda in Iraq – many of whose fighters gave birth to the "Islamic State in Iraq" – were far more closed to the outside world.
Through using the rhetoric of jihad and successes in taking control of vast territories over 2013-2014, the group began to attract recruits and became a success story in a relatively short period of time.
Thousands of foreign fighters left their countries and joined ISIS ranks. However, for a while the group had not been able to recruit many foreign fighters due to strict border precautions taken by neighboring countries. Hence, participation in the group gradually decreased.
The heavy pressure it faces has also damaged its propaganda efforts. Additionally, the group is financially stretched, since it has lost petroleum-rich strongholds like Mosul. Furthermore, while it is losing ground it is also losing the taxes that it was collecting from people living under its rule. It is also not as effective as it was once was on social media.
The Mosul operation, which began in October 2016, has further deteriorated the group's capability. ISIS has lost Mosul. It also has lost the historical 850-year-old Grand al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi Security Forces captured the ruins of the mosque. Security forces, as well as the Baghdad government, viewed this capture as a great victory, since Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, declared his ‘caliphate' from this mosque.
In addition, we should stress that the group had resisted stubbornly in the city and inflicted heavy casualties on security forces. During the Mosul operation, ISIS used its most dangerous weapons—car bomb attacks—very efficiently in the city. The group conducted hundreds of car bomb attacks since the start of the operation. Dozens of these attacks are available to viewers through videos released by the group onto the internet.
The Iraqi security forces have lost hundreds of their members as well as many armored vehicles and tanks in these car bomb attacks. It is also worth noting that the security forces faced harsh resistance and were unable to advance towards the group's positions without the help of coalition airstrikes. The city has been going through difficult times. Airstrikes, car bomb attacks and urban fighting have turned the second biggest city in Iraq into a pile of rubble. In particular, car bomb attacks dramatically extended the duration of the operation.
In order to emphasize ISIS resistance inside Mosul, Lieutenant General Stephen J. Townsend, who commands the American-led task force that is fighting ISIS, described the war in the city as the most significant urban combat to have taken place since World War II.
Nevertheless, the last urban stronghold of the group in Iraq, has collapsed. Some people observing the military situation in Mosul say that the fall of the city will be the end of the Iraqi part of the ISIS ‘caliphate'. Yet, this is an underestimation of ISIS's ideology and power. As Mowaffak al-Rubaie, an Iraqi parliament member, has emphasized, people are missing one crucial point. Iraq faces an ideological challenge and this is more important than anything else.
It is known that ISIS has many fighters and sympathizers, worldwide, who are dedicated to its ideology. The political situation in Iraq still provides fertile ground for ISIS. Additionally, the group, unlike Al-Qaeda, does not refrain from showing its dissatisfaction with Shiites. It presents itself as the enemy of Shiites and the only true representative of Sunnis in the country.
ISIS returns to the desert
Despite all the military gains mentioned above, ISIS is still undermining security in the country. The group is aware of the critical military situation. Therefore, it has been preparing a day-after strategy, a strategy of remaining a territorial entity. ISIS, after suffering heavy casualties and losing vast amounts of territory, is retreating into the desert to plan its comeback. The desert is crucial for the survival of the group in the long term.
The retreat into the desert is temporary. The deserts of Iraq will function as the new military bases of the group. ISIS does not mind losing control over territory because it will always have its ideology. The fighters of ISIS believe that during the war they may face some challenges, but they believe that at the end of the war they will be the winners, since God has promised to make believers victorious.
Another person who said ISIS was willing to return to the deserts was Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the group's previous spokesperson, who was killed in an air strike conducted by the US in Syria in 2016. Adnani, in one of his speeches, said that the group might return to the deserts for a short period to plan their comeback.
With this strategy, the group plans to protect itself in the deserts, and after a while, return to the battlefield in a stronger and evolved form. In Iraq, the group is retreating into the deserts of Anbar province.
The retreat into the deserts should not surprise us, since the Islamic State of Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS, has done this before. The group, in this sense, is returning to its origins/its previous form. In 2007 after fierce clashes with Sahwa (The Awakening) groups, which were key components of the US "surge" strategy for the reduction of violence across Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq retreated into the Iraqi desert.
The group gained power in the desert until 2013. Later on, Iraq witnessed the rise of the evolved form of the Islamic State of Iraq: namely, ISIS. In 2014, ISIS took control of vast Sunni-populated areas of the country as a result of sectarian policies implemented by the Baghdad government against Sunnis.
Many members of Sunni tribes helped ISIS due to Baghdad's sectarian policies. In fact, without the help of Sunni tribes, it is unlikely that ISIS would have been able to take over so many big cities in Iraq within such a short period of time. In order to clarify this situation, we can look at the case of Mosul. ISIS took control of the second biggest city of Iraq in several days. Therefore, it can be said that grievances towards the Iraqi government have created fertile ground for radicalism.
It is important to understand that the strategy of returning to the deserts is efficient and logical. The group is retreating most of its fighters into the desert, but some fighters are not retreating into the desert and instead, are infiltrating the big cities of Iraq in order to carry out deadly attacks.
Fighters from sleeper cells are carrying out car bomb attacks across the biggest cities of Iraq. One of the most tragic examples is Baghdad: this historical city faces now explosions on an almost daily basis. These explosions can also be read as revenge for the Mosul operation.
Furthermore, other fighters have conducted hit-and-run attacks in different populated areas of the country. ISIS aims at disrupting the Iraqi government through these attacks. It is trying to prevent the government from controlling and stabilizing the country. The government and Iraqi institutions are being weakened by these attacks. The Iraqi government is also losing its legitimacy in the eyes of many, since the country faces security problems on an almost daily basis and normal life is far from being on track.
A "desert war" is difficult and costly
ISIS is using deadly attacks to take some of the pressure off its other operations. War in the desert, in any case, is difficult and costly. For this reason, it is very hard to exterminate a group in the desert by military force.
The best course for Iraqi government should be to implement a program of stabilization which will aim to reduce the social evil of radicalism, rather than focusing on defeating ISIS militarily. The group knows the situation within Iraq and acts accordingly. It still has many experienced fighters and they are used to the desert conditions. Most ISIS members have no problems living in the desert.
It is also difficult to surround the group in the desert since they take up vast areas of territory. Additionally, ISIS members are taking their families with them to the desert. Obviously, there will be many women and children in the deserts and rounding up these people is seen by many as morally questionable. Despite all this, the international media, as well as the international coalition, are fooled by an illusion. They think that ISIS is being wiped out. However, this is not yet the case.
A new political system is crucial for the future of Iraq
In light of the points mentioned above, it can be said that recapturing cities from ISIS do not mean the end of the group. ISIS's remnants will try to take advantage of the desert and come back in a new form. In addition to this, we should emphasize that political disorder and sectarianism have become a hotbed for the vicious cycle of killings and destruction in Iraq. What is worse, the situation is highly likely to continue in the country unless Sunnis' rights are ensured in the country. The reasons behind the rise of ISIS are still present in the country.
In this regard, the Iraqi government must create a new political system which will ensure the rights of Sunnis and include different segments of society in the system of governance active in the country. Otherwise, in the short term, the spiral of violence may well increase in Iraq. ISIS still has the potential to reorganize itself in various areas of Iraq, including Anbar province, Salah ad Din province, Baiji, Tikrit, and Fallujah.
ISIS will try to use its previous experiences of fighting in Sunni-populated areas. The group has gained a wealth of experience in urban fighting. Thus, it will take advantage of this situation as well.
By creating a new political system, the Iraqi government can prevent the emergence of new radical organizations such as ISIS. A new political system is crucial for Iraqis in order to enjoy security and stability in the future of their country. In this regard, the main goal of the Baghdad government should not be to defeat ISIS or another radical group militaryily, but rather to eradicate the political context that has provided a fertile ground for radical groups to rise across the country.