The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) control over territory in Syria has ended, bringing to an end the so-called ‘Caliphate’ that its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared in 2014. On Saturday, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced that it had driven out the IS from its last enclave in Baghouz in eastern Syria. Wresting control over Baghouz from IS was far from easy; it took over 10 weeks for the SDF to achieve this. While a US-led coalition of countries aerially bombarded the town, the SDF advanced slowly on the ground. Its fighters had to contend with some of the most battle-hardened and experienced IS fighters who were defending Baghouz. Also, the IS was using women and children as human shields. At the height of its power in 2015, IS controlled a swathe of territory straddling Syria and Iraq. Around 7.7 million people are estimated to have lived under its rule. Life in the IS ‘Caliphate’ was difficult. Its rule was far more repressive and brutal than that of the al-Qaeda.
Although the IS’ ouster from Baghouz is an important milestone, it should not be interpreted as marking its demise. Tens of thousands of IS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria and although they do not have territory to defend any more, they can be expected to engage in guerrilla warfare in rural areas and terrorist attacks in urban centres. Foreign fighters, who constituted a significant proportion of the IS’ rank and file, could move to other jihadist battlegrounds. The Philippines is expected to emerge as the IS’ new bastion. India must be on guard in this regard as IS fighters could be drawn to Kashmir. They are highly radicalised and battle-hardened and can be expected to introduce new complexities to the Kashmir militancy.
What the world knows of the IS is just the tip of the iceberg. Like the al-Qaeda, IS’ tentacles extend far and wide. It is a transnational network of bases and sleeper cells and these could be reactivated in the coming months. Its extremist ideology and methods have not been vanquished. The geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has fuelled much of the sectarian extremism in the world, remains alive and neither Saudi Arabia nor the US, which have provided support to Sunni extremist groups in order to weaken Shia-dominated Iran, are yet to abjure this ruinous policy. Deep rage and a sense of injustice among Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria contributed to IS’ rise. This sentiment continues to simmer in these countries. Unless the grievances underlying its emergence are addressed, IS will be able to tap into this sentiment to hire new recruits.