ISIS faces losing its ‘heaven on Earth’ — then what?
It may turn out to have been a public relations error for IS, ISIL, ISIS, Daesh or whatever else we choose to call the Islamic State to have incorporated “State” into its title. After all, statehood implies territory.
The recapture of the centre of Falluja by Iraqi security forces was further confirmation that the movement is on the retreat, territorially at least, with little prospect of holding its remaining Iraqi stronghold of Mosul, a more emblematic prize, in the long term.
The picture in Syria is more mixed. ISIS is accused of holding the civilian population hostage in its heavily bombarded stronghold of Raqqa.
Winning a battle does not mean winning the war and what happens once Falluja is liberated will be important.
That said, the eventual recovery of all Iraqi territory held by the jihadists at their high point of mid- 2014, when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his Islamic caliphate, may be a question of when, not if.
In the build-up to any Mosul offensive, the focus is on how Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will be able to bring the liberated population of the Sunni heartland back into what he called “the embrace of the nation”.
That is no easy task. Civilians who fled the Falluja battlefront may not regret the departure of ISIS but neither will they want to swap one oppressor for another. Sunni hostility to the sectarian policies of Abadi’s predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, in part facilitated the ISIS takeover.
Warnings that the participation of Iranian-backed Shia militias in retaking Falluja could lead to violence against Sunnis were to a degree borne out.
Human rights agencies accused some militias of widespread abuse, including murder and torture, of fleeing Sunnis. The Iraqi authorities arrested four militiamen accused of having “executed” 49 Sunni men who surrendered to them. A government spokesman said all forces were under strict orders to protect civilians.
Amid reports of abuses against civilians fleeing the battle through militia-held territory north of the city, regular forces encouraged others to take a safer southern route.
The question yet to be resolved is whether the stated good intentions of Abadi, government officials and the army will be sufficient to control such abuses by militias that regard Falluja and its people as the very embodiment of a hostile Sunni community. A victory over ISIS would be hollow if the aftermath were to be renewed sectarian war.
This potential threat aside, ISIS now looks more vulnerable than it did six months or even a week ago. At the peak of its fortunes in mid- 2014, Baghdadi not only declared a caliphate, he struck the words “Iraq and al-Sham” from its name. It was a propaganda gesture to indicate that the movement’s ambitions were global rather just regional.
From then until now, ISIS has claimed to have fulfilled the functions of a state on behalf of those living within its shifting borders. It could be argued that what the regime of murder, torture and extortion inflicted on the unwilling citizenry has been barely worse than that of the worst dictatorships that have governed in the region.
But ISIS can make no claims to statehood if it no longer has territory.
However glossy the journals, however professional the videos and however nimble the social media expertise, ISIS cannot function as a virtual state. At best, it would have to morph into something resembling its past and present rivals.
Some of these, such as al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, have controlled and continue to control territory and aspire to come to power in their respective states but they are not self-declared states.
The unique ISIS selling point among its disaffected and sometimes naïve audience abroad has been its ability to offer a physical haven, even if some of those who risk it find that the “caliphate” is not the heaven on Earth that was promised.
Recruits have included not just fighters but also young people, such as the three teenage British girls who travelled to ISIS territory early in 2015. One, now willingly married to an Australian ISIS volunteer, is accused of trying to lure other girls to join her.
If ISIS is eventually deprived of its territory, how long will her fantasy last?