UCLA’s James Gelvin and the Wilson Center’s Henri Barkey came to the Tower Center April 6 to discuss what the Middle East might look like after the demise of ISIS. Sabri Ates, associate professor at SMU, opened the seminar with a look at ISIS’ demise since its peak in 2014. The group has lost almost a quarter of their territory in the last year, according to BBC.
Syria and the New Middle East
Gelvin, professor of modern Middle Eastern history, opened the seminar with a look at what is referred to as the “New Middle East,” a term invented by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The New Middle East refers to what arose out of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Arab uprisings in 2010-2011.
Syria came late to the uprisings and had a different experience for three reasons according to Gelvin. First, the Syrian uprising was highly militarized, and its was militarized early. Second, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made the fight sectarian by naming Sunnis the enemy of the ruling minority, the Alawites. He went as far as releasing jihadists from prison who had fought U.S. forces in Iraq. Third, it turned into a proxy war making it extremely difficult to resolve. When it seems one side is losing invested allies ramp up support in order to turn the tables. For example, in the spring of 2015 the U.S. and Saudi Arabia amped up opposition support, which then led Assad to turn to Russia for increased support as well.
In a post-ISIS world Gelvin predicts the “Somalization of Syria,” meaning Syria would become like Somalia. There would be a formal government and UN membership, but the regime wouldn’t rule over the entire land and would face a long-term fight against the opposition backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The future of ISIS
ISIS is different from other jihadist groups for two reasons according to Gelvin: One, instead of fighting an insurgency they claimed territory and established a caliphate; and two, they practice takfir. Takfir is when one Muslim declares another Muslim an apostate, for which the penalty is death. ISIS not only fights against non-Muslims, but also Shia Muslims and others they perceive as non-believers. This is why the fight has been so bloody.
Gelvin concluded his talk with five possibilities for a post-caliphate ISIS. They could go underground and re-emerge, relocate, wage an insurgency on Iraq or Syria, give up and move on, or, what Gelvin identifies as the most likely scenario, freelancers or “flaming bananas” will continue to attack globally like the couple in San Bernardino, California.
There is no ‘After ISIS’
Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, opened his portion of the lecture with a dim outlook.
“I’m sorry to tell you, there isn’t going to be an after ISIS,” he said. “Jihadism is alive and well and will continue.”
He partly blames the U.S. strategy for his prediction. While he doesn’t doubt the U.S. will take Mosul and Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, Barkey says there is no plan for the day after.
“We were surprised by Al Qaeda, we were surprised by ISIS, and we will be surprised again,” he said.
President Trump has already almost doubled the troop numbers in Syria, and his administration is working diligently to remove restrictions on the American military imposed by President Obama.
Barkey’s best case scenario is a Balkanized Syria with the regime in the west, Kurds in the north, and local forces filling in the gaps to create communities out of impossible circumstances.