Patrick Cockburn Wonders at What Comes Next

Could ISIS have won the war in Iraq and Syria? Was it always inevitable that the reborn caliphate declared in 2014 after the capture of Mosul would be eliminated as a territorial entity less than five years later? These are important questions that are seldom asked because many observers condemn ISIS as an unmitigated evil and fail to analyze its strengths and weaknesses. But these are important if we are to understand the chances of ISIS resurrecting itself in Syria and Iraq or re-emerging under a different name with ostensibly different objectives. It is worth asking what were the religious, military, political, social, and economic ingredients that went into creating and sustaining this extraordinary militarized cult that for a considerable amount of time controlled a state that extended from the outskirts of Baghdad to the hills overlooking the Mediterranean.

In retrospect, military defeats and victories acquire a false sense of inevitability about them, whether we are looking at the German defeat of France in 1940 or the claimed elimination of the last vestiges of ISIS in 2019. Historians study long-term trends, but contemporary witnesses are more aware of the degree to which good or bad decisions determined the outcome of a conflict and that the result might have gone the other way. For instance, what would have happened if ISIS had not attacked the Kurds, who would have been happy to stay neutral, in both Iraq and Syria in the second half of 2014? This diverted ISIS from its spectacularly successful assault on central government forces in both countries and precipitated the devastating intervention of US airpower. If the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had not split the jihadi movement in Syria in 2013 by seeking to absorb his former proxy, the al-Nusra Front, back into the mother organization, then ISIS would have been in a much stronger position to fight a long war. Probably its very fanaticism—and its belief that it had a monopoly of divine support—prevented it showing greater political adroitness, but we cannot be sure.

As surviving ISIS fighters staggered out of the ruins of their last strong-hold at Baghuz on the Euphrates River on 23 March 2019, it was difficult to recapture the sense of dread that they had spread at the height of their success. I was in Baghdad in June 2014 when their columns of vehicles packed with gunmen were sweeping south as the regular Iraqi army divisions broke into fragments and fled before them. Some Iraqis, with a sense of history, compared the onslaught to that of the Mongol horsemen who captured and sacked Baghdad in 1258. Official spokesman on television would stay silent or announce fictitious victories, so I would call policemen in towns in the path of ISIS and ask what was happening. Often the calls revealed that it was advancing with frightening speed against crumbling or non-existent opposition. I remember thinking that reporters in Paris in May and June 1940 must have tracked the advance of German panzer divisions towards Paris with similar trepidation.

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