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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Raqqa: Only those who are out of touch would say ISIL has been vanquished

A half-baked military campaign has, implausibly, seen off extremists in Raqqa, but now it must finish the job, writes Hassan Hassan

A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces rests on rubble after Raqqa was liberated. Erik De Castro / Reuters
A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces rests on rubble after Raqqa was liberated. Erik De Castro / Reuters

On Tuesday, a Syrian force backed by the United States announced the liberation of Raqqa. The city, the first urban centre to be fully captured by ISIL nearly four years ago, was widely regarded as the group’s capital. That was where the group began to build a comprehensive programme of governance as it prepared to declare a caliphate, which it did six months later.

ISIL is now all but finished there. Its reign of terror is nearly over, as American-aligned forces continue to mop up the city of remaining fighters, cells and improvised explosive devices. The military win marks the end of one type of ISIL and the beginning of a new one.

This process of transformation, away from a quasi-state into an insurgency, started in the early months of last year. The group then began to increasingly adopt insurgency tactics, including more terror attacks in areas outside its control, even in places previously unreached by the organisation at the height of its power in the summer of 2014. It also began to fight less conventionally, relying on sniper attacks, highly-mobile fighting units and suicide bombing.

A hybrid model of insurgency and territorial control emerged. Adoption of insurgency tactics increased as its territory shrank. With the loss of Raqqa and much of Deir Ezzor, the group is now primarily an insurgent organisation based in rural and desert areas.

Relative to its rise in 2014, the group is a shadow of its former self. Judging the group today through a compare-and-contrast lens makes it clear that the international campaign against ISIL has come a long way. ISIL does not present the same threat it presented three years ago. It is unable to attract the same demographics or the same number of people it was able to attract then. And it cannot threaten places like Baghdad, Erbil and neighbouring countries as it once did.

Unfortunately, though, extremism often defies such indicators that politicians and observers like to cite. ISIL’s rise in 2014 defied basic military logic. It was a group on the run in five Syrian provinces, barely noticed in western Iraq and was widely discredited by Sunni forces fed up with its extremist behaviour when it managed to control one third of Iraq and half of Syria. The same pattern applies to the rise and fall of extremist groups since the war on terror was inaugurated 16 years ago.

Only those out of touch with the reality in the region would treat the defeat of ISIL today as anything other than impermanent. The expulsion of ISIL from areas it controlled in 2014 came with high costs, and the countries involved in the campaign are unwilling to do what it takes to consolidate these gains.

Raqqa is a wasteland. Much of the destruction and civilian death could have been avoided. The US-led coalition used annihilation tactics in the city and worked with non-professional militias to manage the battle from the ground. Despite frequent appeals from locals for humanitarian pauses to allow civilians to leave Raqqa or encourage ISIL fighters to flee the city, as happened in nearly all previous battles in Iraq and Syria, the coalition insisted on sticking to the schedule. The approach was simply inconsiderate of human lives.

In the days prior to the liberation, coalition officials reported a whopping 75 strikes within 48 hours in the remaining fraction of the Raqqa territory. The coalition finally accepted to strike a deal with local ISIL fighters to surrender in exchange for allowing thousands of civilians held as human shields to evacuate the remaining areas held by the militants. The deal was reached between the SDF and ISIL on Monday, a day before the liberation was announced.

In its rush to defeat ISIL in eastern Syria, the coalition showed little regard for the local context. It first aligned exclusively with militias viewed suspiciously by the demographics that constitute the majority in that region. When people began to accept the force, primarily because of the increased American footprint that reassured locals that they were part of an international umbrella rather than a Kurdish one, the annihilation tactics in Raqqa enraged people inside and outside the city.

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An example of the coalition’s disregard for the local context was American officials’ initial refusal to use tribal mediation to end the anguish of thousands of local civilians at the risk of death. That local tribes came together to beg American officials to accept their mediation was an opportunity the officials should have grabbed without hesitation, especially in a place where the battle was spearheaded by militias that locals view suspiciously. Snubbing Raqqa’s tribal elders was a reminder of the sheer disconnect that defines much of the fight against extremism.

American officials ultimately left the matter to the discretion of the Kurdish-dominated SDF. But that is not the same as actively and promptly seeking to help locals who came asking for cooperation. Officials should have demonstrated a willingness to deal with the situation themselves, especially as those locals looked at the increased American presence as a hope they will not be subjugated to the rule of a militia they view with suspicion.

The point is that victory against extremists cannot be accomplished by dropping bombs. When the US entered Syria in 2014, it ignored the broader context and environment from which ISIL emerged. It pretended that a half-baked campaign would be enough to degrade and then destroy the extremists. With the subsequent military success and momentum, officials may feel vindicated that their policy is working.

But that is short-sighted, the kind of short-sightedness that usually brings the US back again to the region to fight a threat they previously did not finish properly.

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy