The debate about ISIS is far from over

Challenge facing radical Islamists today is whether to continue fight in Iraq and Syria , or change directions and strategy and focus on striking at Europe.

Billboard erected by ISIS fighters in Palmyra before they fled

2016/04/01 Issue: 50 Page: 7

The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani

The Islamic State (ISIS) is facing a number of serious defeats on multiple fronts. The last few weeks have been particularly taxing on the group’s short, tumultuous and violent history, it having lost territory and some of its top leadership.

On the military front, the group is said to have lost as much as 22% of its territory in what amounts to strategic defeats in both Syria and Iraq. Russian and US air support have contributed much towards weakening Islamist forces on the ground.

This loss of territory is going to hurt ISIS in more than one way. Loss of territory means loss of population that can be taxed. That translates to loss of revenue, which is badly needed to cover the costs of war. With the price of a barrel of oil at near record lows and ISIS forced to trade on the black market at nearly 50% below the official market price, there would be far less revenue at a crucial time in its existence.

Loss of population also means fewer people it can draft to fight for the group. One should not rule out the psychological effect defeats have on the movement and its recruiting powers overseas. As long as ISIS was expanding, claiming victory after victory, using its strong propaganda arm to help draft recruits in Europe and elsewhere, the Islamist group had no trouble attracting fighters. Now, with defeat following defeat, its recruiting power will surely begin to fade.

Additionally, until recently, ISIS used to count on support from Turkey through which recruits and supplies could reach its forces fighting Syria and Iraq. That, too, has changed.

Turkey seems persuaded, perhaps through more European Union promises of membership, to cut off supply routes and prevent militants going to fight with ISIS in Syria or Iraq.

Given these new realities, the Islamists may find it the time for them to reflect on where they go from here. ISIS’s big mistake was precisely the one al-Qaeda wanted to avoid — that of attaching itself to a physical address where it can become vulnerable.

Going counter to the original group’s modus operandi, ISIS’s self-declared caliph established a physical state. Rather than transcending geographic territory and remaining a somewhat utopic state as al-Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden had done.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was able to move on. ISIS’s mistake was to give itself a physical territory where it could be confronted and quite possibly defeated.

So where to go from here and how to go about doing it?

There are no doubt dozens of sleeper agents have infiltrated European countries and are waiting for the right moment to strike, as they have done in Paris and Brussels.

The challenge facing the radical Islamists today is whether to stay and continue the fight in Syria and Iraq, given that their chances of victory are dimming by the day, or change directions and strategy and focus on striking at Europe.

The great challenge facing Europeans is how to secure the European Union, an entity established on the basis of democratic ideas, the free movement of people and freight in an open society with open borders and free travel for its residents and citizens.

But with the current threats of terrorist attacks, it becomes very difficult to reconcile the two philosophies — one of openness and freedom of movement but another of insecurity in the face of ruthless killers.

It seems the European Union is trapped in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Securing the union to become somewhat of a police state is going counter to the ideas of what the EU founding fathers had in mind.

Blueprints of the European Union were imagined in a violence-free society. With violence knocking at the door from both within and outside the union, Europeans are taking a different look at their structure and at their security. Stay tuned; this debate is far from over.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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