World, Analysis, Middle East

OPINION - Destruction of Daesh to escalate regional violence

Violent competition between remnants of Daesh, radical Islamist rivals likely to escalate in foreseeable future

OPINION - Destruction of Daesh to escalate regional violence

OAKLAND, United States

Now that Daesh has been driven out of the heartland of its self-proclaimed caliphate, the provinces of Raqqah in northeastern Syria and Mosul in northern Iraq, it looks probable that fighters loyal to the movement will continue to engage in armed struggle against communities and institutions that they believe oppress and exploit Muslims. 

It seems equally likely that such attacks will become more widely dispersed and more brutal in nature. The crucial question is why such an escalation in violence is going to take place.

One plausible explanation might be that having lost their hard-won territorial domain in the Euphrates River valley, the displaced commanders and cadres of Daesh can be expected to lash out in paroxysms of desperation and vengence.

A related argument would be that the leaders of the movement will feel compelled to demonstrate that it remains a force to be reckoned with, despite the humiliating loss of liberated land. This motive would be particularly apt to propel the actions of Daesh, since the goal of establishing a geographical space in which the community of believers can practice the religion unmolested has constituted the primary impetus for the movement -- and distinguishes Daesh from the parallel but less territorially-oriented project championed by the global al-Qaeda terrorist organization and its local affiliates.

Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies and the director of the Program in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, suggests a third dynamic that may well produce a sharp increase in the frequency and scale of Daesh violence following the collapse of the caliphate: Defeats in Syria and Iraq will almost certainly set the stage for "internal feuding over who is more puritanical" among the various factions that make up the movement.

"Everyone is trying to compete to show they are truer to the cause. They want to cast themselves as the hardest of the hard-liners." This argument offers a compelling explanation for the seemingly irrational and counter-productive massacre that took place in Sinai on Nov. 24, 2017.

There is yet another way in which the eradication of Daesh's territorial domain can be connected to a wider dispersal and heightened ferocity of violence. From the time that it first appeared in Syria in the spring of 2013, the movement has confronted other armed formations of Islamist armed groups.

Prominent among these have been the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front, the Battalions of the Free Men of Syria (Kata'ib Ahrar al-Sham) and the Hawks of al-Sham (Suqur al-Sham). Over the past four and a half years, these armed groups, normally fighting each other on and off, have coalesced into a kaleidoscopic succession of tactical alliances in an attempt to block the advance of Daesh.

One such alliance ended up being unable to stop Daesh from taking control of the city of Raqqah. Another could not prevent Daesh from seizing most of the oil-producing facilities of northeastern Syria. Only in the northwestern province of Idlib did a coalition of Islamist militants operating as the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fatah) manage to expel Daesh and set up a local administration (emirate) of its own.

Jockeying between these competing territorial domains enabled Syrian government troops to regain control of the northern metropolis of Aleppo in Dec. 2016, with a good deal of help from the Lebanon-based Shia movement Hezbollah, several militias sponsored by Iraq and Iran, and the Russian Air Force.

By the time pro-government forces recaptured Aleppo, Daesh had won the allegiance of a wide range of kindred movements operating outside Syria and Iraq. The Ansar Bait al-Maqdis that had battled the Egyptian armed forces in the northern marches of the Sinai Peninsula since the spring of 2011 changed its name to the Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province) in Nov. 2014.

At almost the same time, bands of fighters in southern and central Yemen proclaimed themselves Aden Province, Lahij Province, San'a Province, Liwa al-Akhdar Province, Hadhramaut province and so on.

Daesh veterans who returned home to eastern Libya set up Cyrenaica Province. By the spring of 2015, additional provinces had declared themselves in Algeria, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and the North Caucasus. 2016 saw the appearance of Somalia Province and Greater Sahara Province, centered in northeastern Mali.

In most cases, the emergence of a provincial branch of Daesh accompanied armed conflict with local formations loosely affiliated with the global al-Qaeda network. The Sinai Province came into existence fighting the Soldiers of Egypt (Ajnad Misr) and the al-Murabitun; Aden, Lahij and Hadhramaut Provinces battled al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula for control of the coastal cities of Zinjibar and al-Mukalla; the Cyrenaica Province confronted both al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib, and Ansar al-Sharia.

Combat between Daesh branches and al-Qaeda affiliates was every bit as intense as the armed struggle that any of these formations directed against their respective country's armed forces.

Defeat in Syria and Iraq has severely weakened the far-flung provinces of Daesh in their contests against rival Islamist militants. On the one hand, the movement's loss of territory in the Euphrates River valley deprives it of the financial resources that it had accrued from oil production and the extortion of residents in the cities under its control.

Access to these funds had provided at least some of the incentive for radical Islamist formations in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere to align with Daesh in the first place. And the disbursement of oil and "tax" revenues had enabled the leadership in Raqqah and Mosul to exercise some degree of discipline over the actions of commanders in the provinces. Such supervision has now evaporated.

On the other hand, Daesh's evident inability to protect the heartland of the caliphate diminishes the authority of the Syria-Iraq-based leadership. Fighters pushed out of al-Bab, Raqqah, Sinjar and Albu-Kamal by pro-government forces have retreated home to Egypt, the North Caucasus and Afghanistan, determined to succeed where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his colleagues failed.

It may well be that the primary lesson these disillusioned cadres take back with them is that the Daesh pulled its punches and did not act ruthlessly enough in its campaign to restore the caliphate.

Either way, violent competition between the remnants of Daesh and the movement's radical Islamist rivals is likely to escalate in the foreseeable future. In Egypt, the collapse of the caliphate prompted two armed formations that had previously operated exclusively in the western desert -- the Army of Islam (Jund al-Islam) and the Supporters of Islam (Ansar al-Islam) -- to intervene in the conflict in Sinai.

This direct challenge to Sinai Province on its home turf most likely convinced the movement's leaders to launch the Nov. 24 attack, in order "to send the message that it [remains] the leader of the pack".

Similar dynamics exist in Libya, Yemen, the North Caucasus and Afghanistan, not to mention Nigeria, Mali and Somalia. Consequently, the forcible dissolution of Daesh’s caliphate sets the stage for a surge in savagery from the Sahel to the Pamirs.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency. 

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