What ISIL's rise in 2014 tells us about Al Qaeda's potential in Syria today

The group’s chances of echoing ISIL’s successes will depend on whether policy makers grasp the dynamics of the situation, writes Hassan Hassan

Iraqi forces backed by the Hashed Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization units) advance towards the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, after the Iraqi government announced the beginning of the operation to retake it from the control of the Islamic State (IS) group on August 22, 2017. 
Iraqi forces recaptured from the Islamic State group the first two districts of jihadist bastion Tal Afar, as the Pentagon chief visited Baghdad in a show of support. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
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As ISIL retreats in Iraq and Syria, one fundamental question being asked is whether the organisation still has the potential to rise again. An answer to this question could also help us understand the kind of threat that Al Qaeda in Syria, the group's ideological sibling and rival, presents in the future.

In my opinion, judging the potential of the two groups depends on knowing the answer to another critical question: how much did ISIL owe its rise in 2014 to its absorption of the human and material resources of the dying anti-American insurgency in Iraq in the years after 2007? ISIL’s predecessors operated within a sea of Sunni insurgent groups of disparate ideological stripes. That well-resourced, battle-hardened and politically charged insurgency rapidly transformed in the wake of the United States’s troop surge in 2007 as various factions turned their guns against their wayward fellow.

According to observers as well as the group’s own writings, the insurgency transformed in large part by virtue of a military momentum led by the increased US forces on the ground and a tribal uprising known as the Awakening Councils. An internal assessment by ISIL’s predecessor in 2010 explained the failure of the transformation this way: “The continuation of the Awakening Councils’ momentum was impossible because the motives that led people to them quickly crumbled in the face of the dangerous consequences that they caused.”

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The US succeeded in turning the bulk of the Iraqi insurgents into allies. But no further steps were taken to sustain the success and preserve the transformation. Many young fighters were galvanised by the US-sponsored project in Sunni areas, while others were not fully convinced. As time went by and the factors that created the momentum weakened, ISIL’s previous incarnation appeared better positioned than before to inherit the dying insurgency.

Inheriting an insurgency is not limited to winning recruits or to even being popular. It is also about being seen as the only viable force with the resolve to carry on the cause. In the years leading to the takeover of Mosul, ISIL seized the power vacuum and the impotent rage and absorbed what remained of the insurgency. A minority of locals joined it, and a little more cheered for it silently, but ISIL benefited from the existence of a large base, which previously supported the broader insurgency, to operate in a hospitable environment or at least without resistance.

In unresolved conflicts, an insurgency base does not easily go away. The Islamist insurgency against Hafez Al Assad in the 1970s and 1980s was wiped out but some of it came to life when the Syrian uprising turned into an armed conflict. Syrian groups like Ahrar Al Sham and Jabhat Al Nusra could even be regarded as the second generation of the 1970s militancy.

So, to answer the original question, ISIL's rise in 2014 could be attributed to its exploitation of the hidden energy of a defeated insurgency. That opportunity may not necessarily exist today for ISIL. The Iraqi government has the ability to capitalise on the military gains and the popular awareness of what ISIL stands for to move the country forward.

In Syria, though, the potential to inherit and absorb an insurgency exists, and Al Qaeda is better positioned than ISIL to do so.

The mainstream Syrian opposition is heading towards defeat. Half of the country is controlled by ISIL or its US-backed enemies, and the other half is either held by the regime, increasingly being dominated Al Qaeda or in the process of being turned into de-escalation zones — with no clear political outcome. On the surface, the Syrian conflict appears poised for a settlement. Foreign backers of the opposition have abandoned previous objectives to oust the regime, and many of them are focused primarily on threats posed by extremists. Communities are also devastated.

Outside observers and foreign policy makers may look at the situation in Syria and see various pieces coming together. They see events are shifting towards a clear resolution, and a momentum for peace is slowly building. That foreign backers of the opposition have abandoned the rebels is sometimes cited as a reason to move ahead with reaching ceasefires without dealing with the essence of the Syrian conflict, namely the regime and its repressive security apparatus.

But that is a mistake that has been made in previous conflicts. Officials could present compelling data to demonstrate success in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the US continues to go back to fight another war within long wars.

The same mistake is being made in Syria. Hayat Tahrir Al Sham has become increasingly aggressive and forceful in its attempts to push aside any rebel competition and establish itself as the custodian of armed struggle against the regime.

In Idlib, it took a series of steps since the summer of last year to rebrand itself and dominate the northwestern province and its vicinity. This week, the group moved one step further in its hegemonic project when it publicised its intention to establish a "civil administration" for northern Syria. On Tuesday, it asked Idlib's civilian council to step aside as the group takes control of governance in the city.

Sources indicate that the group has also dispatched around three dozen leading members, such as the previous chief of its Deir Ezzor branch, Abu Mariyyah Al Qahtani, who is well-versed in tribal outreach, to southern Syria to expand itself and prepare for a potential return when ISIL is expelled from eastern Syria.

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With its rebranding, forceful acquisition and expansion, the group took a leaf out of the book of ISIL’s predecessor after 2005. Its current approach focuses on a combination of weakening and eliminating rivalry, steadily controlling local resources and presenting itself as the uncompromising force against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

The group’s chances of echoing ISIL’s successes in recent years will depend on whether policy makers grasp the fact that the conflict in Syria, and in Iraq before it, cannot be ended with mere military gains and rosy data.

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy

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