In Depth

Is this really the end for Isis?

The militants are battling to maintain grip on last vestiges of territory in Syria

Islamic State is losing control of its final foothold in Syria but questions remain about whether the impending defeat spells the end for the terrorist group.

At its peak, in 2014-15, Isis controlled around half the territory of both Syria and Iraq and ruled over as many as eight million people. Today, what remains of the caliphate declared by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “amounts to one or two besieged villages in southeastern Syria”, says The Observer.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led rebel group backed by the US, is slowly expelling the militants from Baghouz Al-Fawqani, a village in the province of Deir Ezzor at the centre of the territory still under Isis rule.

In December, Donald Trump announced that US troops would be leaving Syria and said that Isis was defeated. But two months on, there remains a serious disconnect between the president’s assessment of the situation and those of many foreign policy experts.

So is this the end of Isis?

The capture of the last few Isis-held villages in Syria would mark the end of a devastating four-year global war to end the group’s territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Trump has said he wants to withdraw US troops from Syria by the end of April, but the proposal “has alarmed European allies who fear Islamic State would resurface in Syria in the absence of a credible peace plan to end the country’s civil war”, reports Reuters.

“The so-called Islamic State has been luckily driven out of its territory but this unfortunately doesn’t mean [it] has disappeared,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “It is transforming into an asymmetrical warfare force. And this, of course, is a threat.”

That view is shared by Lebanese political analyst Assad Bechara, who told Time magazine that Isis is an ideology, not just a military structure, and as such cannot be defeated simply by reclaiming territory.

The US pull-out “will leave a huge vacuum” that “will increase the international and regional struggle for power and influence in Syria”, which in turn may make it easier for the militant group to return, Bechara said.

Meanwhile, in an article on Politico, former US National Security Council members Christopher Costa and Joshua Geltzer write that Isis “may be largely beaten, but it’s not gone - and many of the conditions that led to its rise remain, from an absence of political legitimacy to a failure of governance”.

Earlier this month, US Defence Commander General Joseph Votel testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the fight against Isis and violent extremists is not over and our mission has not changed”.

What threat may Isis still pose?

Isis and what it stands for “remain capable of influencing and attracting terror recruits around the world, notwithstanding its loss of a central command base”, says The Observer.

According to CNN, the group and its adherents have “conducted or inspired more than 140 terrorist attacks in 29 countries other than Iraq and Syria since 2014, killing at least 2,000 people”.

Now, “thousands of Isis fighters find themselves in post-traumatic drift, and some number will attempt to infiltrate the West”, write Costa and Geltzer. “The ‘Wandering Mujahedeen’ may well be the greatest danger posed by post-caliphate Isis.” 

Indeed, the real battle against Isis “is about a long-term defeat of their ideology”, says New York City-based think-tank The Soufan Center, founded by former FBI special agent Ali Soufan. “There have been several other occasions where the group’s death knell has been predicted, only to have it rest, recuperate and resurge to conquer new territory - true defeat must go beyond simple military successes.”

Calling for the continued presence of Western troops in the region, the site adds: “Only with effective and fair governance and an inclusive society that respects minority rights can groups like the Islamic State be defeated in the long-term.”

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