With last week’s murderous attacks in Brussels, Islamic State (Isis) reminded us that it can strike at the heart of Europe, seemingly at will, and with depressing regularity. But while this is surely true, and will remain so for quite a time, like the wave of anarchist assassinations and terror attacks that plagued Europe at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in geostrategic terms, this is so much less than meets the eye. For the simple, clear truth of the matter is that Isis is losing its campaign against humanity, and losing it badly.
First, just the plain strategic facts. In 2015, Isis lost 14 per cent of the territory it controlled at its zenith. This slide accelerated early this year, as the terror state has ceded back another 8 per cent of its holdings in the first three months of 2016. In military terms, in western Iraq and eastern Syria, this is not a group on the rise.
Further, while it is hard to see Mosul (the second city of Iraq) or the caliphate’s capital at Raqqa falling anytime soon, nor is Isis any longer a strategic threat to the non-Sunni areas of Syria or Iraq. The perilous days when the terror state was at the gates of Baghdad are blessedly behind us.
Despite portraying itself as the great Sunni champion of its region, Isis is even having trouble controlling restive Sunnis in its fiefdom, and its message is met with absolutely no enthusiasm by either the Shia or Kurdish populations in the area, who are its mortal enemies. As such, there is a real military and ideological limit to how far Isis has the potential to regain ground in Syria and Iraq.
This diminution in power seems to have led to increasing tensions within the movement as to what to do next. One faction favours putting all of Isis’s eggs in one basket, doubling down on securing its endangered possessions in Syria and Iraq.
The other, advocating a more globalist view and being strongly in favour of striking Europe with increasing ferocity, sees failed states in Libya and perhaps Afghanistan as a better way forward. Over such a fundamental strategic divide, it is hard to see how a political compromise can be reached. As is true for most political groups on the wane, Isis faces rising internal divisions. At this critical juncture, analysts would do well to keep their eyes firmly peeled for increasing signs of political dissension.
Militarily imperilled, ideologically checkmated, and politically divided, Isis must be seen for what it is: a second order (if murderous) foreign policy problem, that is likely to ever further recede as a force in the next few years. While political divisions between the Arab and Western states keep it in power, even this has an upside.
For the long-term political interests of the Middle East to be ideally served, it is best that Isis continues making a mess of governing its self-styled caliphate, if its political, social, military, and ideological failure is to be made apparent to all, crucially those in the Sunni regions. If the West merely gets rid of the present incarnation of Sunni extremism, another – perhaps more virulent strain – is bound to plague us in future.
By contrast, a local defeat, engineered primarily by organic regional forces, makes it more likely that the blight of Sunni extremism – traced from Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) through to Isis – can be far more easily eradicated. For it is getting the politics right here that is, as ever, the most important thing.
All this means that it is ever more important the West doesn’t panic, even after the Paris and Brussels tragedies. For all that we mourn our dead, it must be kept constantly in mind that we are winning the war against Isis. In fact, the only way we can really lose is if we lose our nerve, overreact, and make them a cause celebre in the non-radicalised Arab world.
Though it will take a number of years more for its final destruction to come about, Isis is clearly on its way down. This particular brand of radical Islam now has its best days firmly behind it. But it matters intensely how this drama specifically ends, if we are to actually eradicate radical Sunni Islam over time, rather than merely destroy one scourge, only for it to metastasise into something even more diabolical the next time. Letting Isis be destroyed by local organic forces – rather than by Western overreaction – will do more than anything else in the long run to actually win this vital war.