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Interview: Its 'Aura' Dented By Lost Foothold, Islamic State Still Poses Threat

Iraqi federal police dance with civilians and an Iraqi flag to celebrate success against Islamic State fighters in Mosul on July 2, 2017.
Iraqi federal police dance with civilians and an Iraqi flag to celebrate success against Islamic State fighters in Mosul on July 2, 2017.

In Iraq, government forces backed by U.S. coalition air strikes, Kurdish militias, and other units have declared Mosul liberated from three years of occupation by Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) militants. In Syria, U.S.-backed Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces, supported by coalition aircraft, are on the verge of entering the IS stronghold of Raqqa, which the group once declared the capital of its self-styled "caliphate." Some three years after its fighters stunned the world by seizing vast swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, IS is on the run. But experts warn that the radical Sunni group is decidedly not defeated, irrespective of whether the two cities are liberated. Both Syria and Iraq remain unstable and plagued by corruption, sectarian tensions, sky-high youth unemployment, and dismal economic prospects.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the widely read blog Syria Comment, talks about how the loss of Raqqa and Mosul might transform IS. But Landis says it would be folly to assume this is the end of the militant group.

RFE/RL: When Islamic State fighters swept through the region, much was made of their self-declared caliphate and their battlefield victories; and now that all seems to be evaporating in fairly short order. Perhaps in retrospect, the seizure of that territory wasn’t as essential or significant to the group as initially thought?

Joshua Landis: The seizure of the caliphate was crucial to the aura that surrounded the Islamic State. It differentiated it from Al-Qaeda and from hundreds of other militias that had popped up in Syria and indeed in Iraq. It really put the Islamic State on the map, so to speak.

And it really produced tons of enthusiasm throughout the Islamic world, because it [meant], many people believed, that Islamic State was born again. If you take that state away, and ISIS becomes -- perhaps not more lethal, but it becomes another Al-Qaeda -- another group that is vying for some relevancy out there, to become the spearhead of a new Islamic order. But without a "state," it will be much diminished.

RFE/RL: So does the loss of Raqqa and Mosul, and loss of such territorial gains, mean that Islamic State is finished?

Landis: Well, it’s not finished. Clearly, the terrible disorder of the Middle East, the weakened states -- Iraq, of course, is limping along, although it’s reconsolidated; Syria is still very much in a very fragmented state and we don’t know whether it’s going to end up being divided or not divided -- but the entire Middle East is shuddering in the aftereffects of the Arab Spring, almost all of the political order is seriously delegitimized.

Most of the problems that brought about the Arab Spring are still big problems: whether it’s the youth bulge, the unemployment, [or] bad economic governance.... None of the countries are really making the kind of progress that young people hope to see. And even countries like Egypt, which have come back from the brink, their economic numbers are going in the wrong direction. Tunisia is struggling with terrible corruption, and it looks like stagnant government. It’s not clear where the light is at the end of the tunnel. So long as the future, the economic future of the Middle East, is not bright, there will be a place for these apocalyptic and radical movements like the Islamic State.

But that being said, it’s very important that they have lost, and are losing. That is a big blow. As we know, Al-Qaeda got a real leg forward when it attacked the United States so dramatically on 9/11, when it seemed to drive Russia out of Afghanistan; it made tons of hay out of those victories. And to have a loss is not to their credit, it's going to be very hard for them to make up for that with propaganda.

A Syrian soldier takes a selfie with an Islamic State (IS) group billboard at the Ithraya-Rasafa highway near the city of Raqqa on July 9, 2017.
A Syrian soldier takes a selfie with an Islamic State (IS) group billboard at the Ithraya-Rasafa highway near the city of Raqqa on July 9, 2017.

RFE/RL: How do you expect IS to respond both locally and internationally [to its loss of territory]?

Landis: Already we’ve seen ISIS responding with lots of attacks, like lots of car bombs and suicide attack in capitals, like in Damascus, that we saw just this week, in Baghdad, and in other major cities. ISIS needs to maintain its relevance right now and, in a sense, to give itself cover for these dramatic territorial defeats. So ISIS is striking out in ways it knows how.

RFE/RL: With regard to the populations that have suffered, or survived under Islamist State control and with all the attendant brutality that came with that, how do you foresee the communities responding? What needs to happen for them to recover?

Landis: First of all, ISIS spread because of the collapse of this state: I mean, in Iraq and Syria, and you see Libya and Yemen and so forth. With the return of the state, and a police force, and an intelligence service, that is going to be the first line of defense against ISIS. But secondly...these governments have got to address the long-term problems which produced this radicalism and those I mentioned before: bad governance, corruption, youth bulge, no jobs, despair. This is going to be very hard for them to do, because in many ways they have doubled down on their oppressive nature and they have not carried out significant reforms. That’s going to be the challenge for the future: How to prepare these young people for a productive future in a globalizing world.

Professor Joshua Landis (file photo)
Professor Joshua Landis (file photo)

RFE/RL: There seems to be a growing list of declared enemies of IS, including countries whose intentions don't necessarily align. For example, the evolving approaches by Turkey, of course, Russia, and Iran. How has the list of enemies of Islamic State evolved over time, and will the next phase of IS's war...only exacerbate the conflicting aims of these regional powers?

Landis: We’ve seen over the past decade growing awareness among the regional powers -- Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt-- that ISIS is a real pest, that it cannot be a force. It can’t be an aid. When it first popped up, most powers underestimated it. Even President [Barack] Obama called it a “JV league.” (Editor's note: the "JV" reference is to “junior varsity,” or second-tier). They didn’t have a clue how forceful, how dramatically powerful a force it would become. Turkey helped ISIS. Many other countries, too. Money flowed in because every country had enemies that it prioritized above ISIS so ISIS could maneuver and had a period of time, a grace period. Once the world began to focus on it and prioritize it, it’s been destroyed fairly rapidly; but that took time.

Now the problem is [that] the Middle East is in terrible disarray, as we’ve seen in the most recent struggle between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, or the war between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, or the “to-ing and fro-ing” between Turkey and the United States. There is very little unanimity, and every power is angling for advantage in the Middle East; and that means that radical groups often can run between the legs of major powers because they are competing against each other and often at least for a short period of time, they see Islamic extremists as an ally, much the way the United States did in Afghanistan when it was vying for that country with Russia. And that’s been the problem ever since, is that Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, a host of other countries have seen Al-Qaeda and ISIS in a sense as an ally against Assad, or against other regional powers like the Kurds. That’s going to be hard to maintain the focus on Islamic extremism and the "war on terror" for the United States. It’s going to be difficult for the United States to do that so long as the Middle East is in such disarray.

RFE/RL: Fighters from Russia’s Chechnya region have played a major role in battlefield victories of Islamic State. So have fighters from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and other parts of Central Asia. Russian, in fact, is reportedly the second-most common language spoken among Islamic State fighters. What do you think is going to happen specifically with regard to the Chechens and also to the Central Asians, the Uzbeks and Tajiks, as the Islamic State shrinks?

Landis: Almost all of those fighters, a good many of them, are bunched in the Idlib Province. That’s the province in Syria’s northwest, near the Turkish border. Right now, that’s a zone of de-confliction. There isn’t a lot of fighting going on there. Assad is focusing on the east, as is the United States in focusing on the defeat of ISIS, and there’s a scramble for land going on along the Iraqi border and the Euphrates Valley. But as soon as that quiets down and there’s a semblance of order about who gets what in the east, Syria is going to swing back to the western provinces that are still held by rebels and where the Uyghurs and Chechens are mostly encamped and have taken over villages in small regions, for their own home base. Russia, Syria, Iran are all going to be very much destroying those units that have been such effective fighters.

Whether Turkey will shut the border on them and allow them to be killed is another question. We know that Turkey has been giving citizenship, and at least temporary papers, to Uyghurs in large numbers; and they’ve gone through Turkey and settled in Syria, and they will be able to travel back out through Turkey. And whether Turkey cooperates in trying to apprehend them, that is a good question. Same thing with the Chechens; many different powers could use that as a negotiating card against Russia. So we’ll have to see how concerted the international effort is to surround these groups and bring them to justice.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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