A few blocks of rubble and ruin in Raqqa are all that are left of ISIS’ so-called caliphate, where a handful of doomed insurgents fight on. The nearby Clock Tower Square marks the spot where ‘severed heads were placed on stakes after executions by Isis that residents were summoned to witness.’
As a few hundred separate ISIS fighters make their last stand amid the twisted metal and shattered concrete of their self-declared capital, it’s easy for us to imagine the group is finished for good; that its fall will be as sudden as its rise.
Except ISIS is unlikely to disappear. And the group’s rise was not sudden either. In its earlier iteration as Al Qaeda in Iraq it suffered a catastrophic defeat in 2006-08. After that it seemed to be gone for good until a perfect storm of circumstances- chiefly, Shia majoritarianism and the Syrian civil war- allowed it opportunistically grow and become ISIS as we know it.
So what’s the future of ISIS? In a new article in The Washington Quarterly, Paul Staniland, political science professor at the University of Chicago offers some ‘suggestive scenarios’.
Staniland is an expert on insurgent groups and has done much of his work in South Asia. His article examines the responses of 15 insurgent groups in South Asia after they suffered major military setbacks. The groups under study are a diverse bunch, ranging from Islamic extremists to communist revolutionaries and garden-variety ethno-linguistic separatists. They include the LTTE in Sri Lanka, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and several Indian insurgents organisations.
Staniland identifies three ‘initial findings’ about insurgents that have suffered battlefield reversals. One, most insurgents are not vanquished after an offensive. It’s true that one particularly formidable group, the LTTE, was decisively defeated in 2009, but that insurgent group had existed in some form since 1972 and had experienced several swings of fortunes in that time.
Two, insurgent organisations that didn’t collapse ‘sought to mobilize local communities and to exploit international and domestic sanctuaries as a way of stabilizing their downward trajectory.’ This is what the Taliban did. After they were driven out of Afghanistan in 2001, Taliban leaders regrouped in Pakistan with the help of its government and made a comeback. Sixteen years on, they’re still operating effectively in Afghanistan.
Three, in the wake of military setbacks, insurgents adjust their political messaging and dig in for a long-haul fight. The LTTE reminded its supporters of the dangers of Sinhala chauvinism, the Taliban rebranded their fight as a struggle to evict Americans, and the Naxalites kept offering their dream of a revolution in India.
The future of ISIS
Some will no doubt object to studies like Staniland’s, arguing that ISIS is unique and cannot be compared to other insurgent groups. This is hardly tenable. It’s true that at its height, ISIS was a ‘pseudo-state led by a conventional army’ that also employed terror. But several other insurgent groups have also run mini-states in the past or even seized power. And terrorism is a common tool among insurgents, guerrillas, and assorted revolutionaries throughout modern history. As Staniland himself concludes, ISIS ‘blends characteristics of both separatist and revolutionary groups’.
In his article, Staniland lays out the possible outcomes from the ongoing offensives against ISIS. The first is that ISIS will fight to the death and be wiped out like the LTTE. This is not probable. The LTTE found itself surrounded by a regular army under a unified command. Its escape routes were sealed off, and cadres had their backs to the sea. Many ISIS fighters and commanders, on the other hand, are likely to escape, even if those holed up in Raqqa are killed or captured.
The second possibility is that ISIS still controls some territory, but is contained. ‘Taking advantage of the fractured array of armed actors around it and creatively using withdrawals and strategic diversions, the group could survive with some degree of territorial control.’ This is also unlikely. Events in Iraq and Syria have been moving fast over the last few months. ISIS barely control territory anymore and is unlikely to be able to win back territory and hold it in the immediate future.
Staniland’s third scenario, is that ISIS will return to guerrilla warfare and perhaps bide its time before making a comeback. Something along these lines may be more likely. The journalist Patrick Cockburn notes that ISIS leaders probably anticipated the loss of Mosul and Raqqa, and that to fight on, ‘they have prepared bunkers, weapons caches and food stocks in the deserts and semi-deserts between Iraq and Syria where they can hope to ride out the storm and perhaps make a comeback in a few years’ time.’
Staniland outlines how ISIS might ride out storm: ‘Limited state presence and the presence of ethno-sectarian armed groups in the shattered zones along the Euphrates River Valley provide opportunities for ongoing guerrilla warfare, in addition to porous borders and supportive local communities.’
From here ISIS could go the way of the Taliban and make a comeback or simply become a nuisance in the manner of separatist groups like ULFA in Assam. To make comeback, ISIS will need to take advantage of ‘absent, incompetent, and/or predatory state presence to slowly rebuild.’ ISIS did exactly this after its defeat in 2006-08. But this time around, regional governments and great powers are going to be a lot more careful about letting ISIS return.
If it doesn’t quite make a resurgence, ISIS might continue low-level attacks. ‘Like ULFA in Assam, ISIS could retain political and military relevance for a long time, but not pose a serious threat, possibly eventually fading away.’ These attacks will undoubtedly include violence against civilians. ISIS may never again become the force it once was, but it’s likely to keep reminding us of its existence with acts of bloodshed.