The Fall of Raqqa and the Islamic State: What Comes Next?

ISIS terrorists ride tanks during a June 2014 parade in Raqqa, Syria. (Raqqa Media Center via AP)
ISIS terrorists ride tanks during a June 2014 parade in Raqqa, Syria. (Raqqa Media Center via AP)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter@JosephVMicallef.

The Islamic State (IS) is rapidly nearing a point of collapse. It has lost control of eastern Mosul to a coalition comprised of the Iraqi military and Kurdish, Shia and Sunni militias supported by the United States and its NATO allies. That same coalition, which has held together despite a very tenuous political consensus, is now penetrating western Mosul. It has seized the airport and controls the remaining city bridge across the Tigris. Despite tough resistance in the old city sections of eastern Mosul, it is expected that the rest of the city will fall in the next six to eight weeks.

In Syria, progress has been slower. Syrian government forces, aided by their Russian and Iranian allies, had previously focused on eliminating the resistance posed by the anti-Assad Syrian rebels and only secondarily on fighting IS militants. The ongoing clash between Turkish forces and those of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the latter largely consisting of Syrian Kurdish militias, and both nominally US allies, has complicated the ground offensive against Islamic State.

The Turkish supported militias lack sufficient strength to mount an independent campaign against IS forces in Raqqa. The Turkish sponsored campaign in Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield, would require the deployment of additional Turkish troops to pose a credible threat to Islamic State's control of the city. Additional Turkish deployment in Syria would be highly unpopular with Turkish voters. Given that the Erdogan government is in the middle of orchestrating a referendum to amend the Turkish constitution to expand the powers of the presidency, an increase of Turkish troops in Syria is unlikely.

Moreover, the Turkish troops and their sponsored militias are blocked to the south by Syrian troops loyal to the Assad government and to the east by the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Neither group is likely to permit the passage of Turkish troops or their affiliated militias. Despite being dealt out of the Raqqa campaign, Turkish forces can still play the role of a spoiler by engaging SDF forces and disrupting their campaign to seize Raqqa. From Ankara's standpoint, a successful role in the seizure of Raqqa would endow the SDF with the prestige and political support from the US and its NATO allies that it could leverage into broader support for the proposed semi-independent Syrian Kurdish state of Rojava. The Erdogan government has made its opposition to the recognition of Rojava unmistakably clear.

Back in the spring of 2016, it appeared that Syrian military forces and the US backed SDF were engaged in a "race to Raqqa." The race was perceived as a sort of proxy contest between the US and Russia for the right to claim the defeat of the Islamic State. The race, however, failed to materialize. IS resistance proved stronger than had been anticipated. In the meantime, Syrian military forces turned their attention to Aleppo and to consolidating their hold in the city. The SDF, on the other hand, turned its attention to taking the city of Manbij, a key town west of the Euphrates astride the main M4 highway through the area, as part of the broader campaign to link the Kurdish enclave in Afrin with the rest of the SDF controlled territories to the east.

With IS now seen as on its last legs, the "race to Raqqa" seems to be back on. Although the fall of Raqqa, and presumably Mosul, will not mark the end of the Islamic State, it will leave IS shorn of its two major urban centers and consisting of a small collection of towns, the roads connecting them and portions of the city of Deir ez-Zor scattered across a patchwork of largely desert areas and a portion of the Euphrates Valley. Both Washington and Moscow, however, see the capture of Raqqa as an important symbolic victory, a metaphor for which side's campaign has proven to be the most effective.

The US has moved quickly in recent weeks to increase its military presence in Syria. The Pentagon has dispatched the 75th Ranger Regiment to Manbij. They are mounted on a combination of Strykers, heavily armed and armored, eight-wheeled vehicles, described as tanks on wheels, Humvees and blast resistant, heavy duty trucks. The vehicles all prominently display the US flag and the Rangers, in an unusual role, have made it a point to be conspicuous. The deployment is intended to discourage the Turkish backed militias on the outskirts of the town and the SDF militias from engaging one another, since an outbreak of hostilities by either side could risk American casualties. Russian aid convoys have been bringing supplies to Syrian military units on the southwest edge of the city, and there are reports of Russian Special Forces operatives also stationed there. That makes Manbij the only city in Syria where US and Russian forces are in such proximity to one another.

In addition, approximately 400 Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) have been deployed to support SDF forces advancing on Raqqa. The Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, the MEU's ground force, will operate an artillery battery of M777 150mm howitzers. The battery can fire conventional rounds with a range of approximately 15 miles, as well as Excalibur GPS-guided rounds with a range of around 25 miles. This is the second time that the Pentagon has deployed an artillery battery manned by Marines in the fight against Islamic State. An earlier deployment at Camp Bell in Iraq was designed to provide fire support for units of the Iraqi Army advancing on IS militants in Mosul. These new deployments are in addition to the 200 or so Special Operations Forces (SOF) that have already been operating in Syria. Unconfirmed reports swirling around Washington have suggested that an additional 1,000 US soldiers may soon be heading for Syria. In the meantime, over the last two weeks, approximately 2,500 Marines have been deployed to a forward base in Kuwait.

It appears likely that within the next six to twelve months, the Islamic State will lose direct control of its current territorial domain. What then? Is this the end of the Islamic State? Unfortunately, no!

There are five distinct aspects to the Islamic State. First, the Islamic State is a state, albeit one that is not recognized by any other government. It has a defined geographic territory, even if those boundaries are amorphous. It functions like any government: it issues passports, collects taxes, organizes a military force and provides basic services to its citizens. It doesn't do any of these things particularly well, but it does do them.

Secondly, Islamic State is an international jihadist movement. The organization has franchises and unofficial affiliates, including the United States, in approximately 50 countries. Both franchises and affiliates are organizations that have publicly pledged their loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Franchises have been formally accepted as part of the Islamic State, while affiliates have not been. In the US, for example, an IS supporter identifying himself as Abu Ibrahim Al-Ameriki claiming to lead an organization of 71 militants, pledged his loyalty to al-Baghdadi, but was never officially recognized. In addition, there are "lone wolf" militants that have pledged their loyalty to IS but are not members of a local organization. Since 2014, Islamic State and its franchises and affiliates have conducted a total of 143 attacks in 29 countries that have killed 2,043 individuals.

Thirdly, Islamic State is an insurgency. It conducts such operations directly in Iraq and Syria and through franchises elsewhere. Among its better-known franchises are Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Boko Haram in Nigeria and a faction of al Shabaab in Somalia. All three of these organizations predated IS and joined the organization as franchises after it rose to prominence. In addition, IS franchises in Libya, Sinai, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been implicated in widespread, ongoing insurgencies in those countries.

Fourth, Islamic State is a budding international criminal organization. IS has smuggling oil and antiquities out of the territory it controls. In addition, it has engaged in kidnapping for ransom and various forms of extortion. Over the last year, IS has become increasingly involved with the drug trade in Europe. Russian news reports that IS earns up to one billion dollars a year from the drug trade have never been substantiated and are probably exaggerated. The DEA, however, has confirmed that ISIS militants are involved with the smuggling of drugs across the Sahara and, usually through the Balkans, into Europe.

According to the DEA, IS militants are providing protection to drug smugglers; similar to the role that the Taliban plays in the Afghan drug trade. When it was in power the Taliban destroyed poppy fields. Now it is facilitating both the export of drugs and the import of supplies essential to the manufacture of Afghan heroin. Afghanistan is now the source of roughly 80 percent of the world's heroin. The skill set required to be a successful insurgent and to carry out terrorist attacks lends itself readily to the conduct of international criminal conspiracies. As IS continues to feel the financial impact of its loss of territory, criminal activities will become an ever-growing source of revenue for the organization.

Finally, Islamic State is a powerful, seductive idea. Its slick, professional quality propaganda and its ability to exploit social media platforms have resulted in both financial support and a continuing stream of supporters. IS media has been responsible for radicalizing "lone wolf" attackers in both Europe and North America. Moreover, the ability of that media to continue to radicalize individuals continues even after its advocates have been killed. Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni Iman and al Qaeda leader who was killed by a US drone strike on September 30, 2011, continues to preach across the Internet. In fact, his sermons are openly advertised on Google.

The collapse of the Islamic State "nation" will have a profound effect on the organization, its ability to stage terrorist attacks, the continued loyalty of its franchises and its international appeal to jihadists, but it will not eliminate its ongoing presence. Several analysts have suggested that a physical territory is critical for Islamic State to maintain its caliphate. Presumably, shorn of that territory, the idea of IS as a caliphate will not be credible to its supporters. That is not a foregone conclusion, however. IS has demonstrated that it is a powerful brand. History is full of examples of brands that have survived long after the products associated with the brand disappeared. Consider Pan Am, a brand that is still recognizable more than 25 years after it stopped flying its planes or Polaroid, an iconic brand that has not produced any cameras since 2001.

What is more likely is that IS will continue to demonstrate its ability to adapt, adjust and morph to its new reality. The loss of its Syrian and Iraqi territory will likely result in more insurgent activity in those countries. The return of thousands of IS militants to their homes will undoubtedly precipitate an increase in IS inspired terrorist attacks worldwide. Regardless of its lack of territory, Islamic State's ability to radicalize and mobilize new militants will continue undiminished. Islamic State's first chapter will close soon. Its second chapter is just beginning.

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