The Legacy of ISIS and the Need for Peace in Syria

The Legacy of ISIS and the Need for Peace in Syria

An SDF fighter walks in an empty street in As Susah, Syria. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The once vast caliphate of the Islamic State, better known as ISIS, is no more. On March 23, the last scrap of ISIS territory fell to a US-backed coalition. But while the state of ISIS is gone, the terrorist organization still survives in the shadows and its memory is a stark reminder of the dangers of political unrest and extremism, and a warning for how Syria needs to proceed.

What ISIS Once Was

ISIS grew out of Al-Qaeda in 2006 and, like other terrorist cells in the Middle East, it was initially a dangerous organization, but one whose territorial aspirations, if any, seemed like a pipe dream. However, the Syrian Civil War was the perfect incubator for ISIS to establish itself as an actual state. Taking advantage of the sheer domestic unrest in Syria, and then Iraq, ISIS declared itself a caliphate in 2014.

At its height in 2015, ISIS, from its capital at Raqqa, controlled nearly half of Syria and a significant part of northern Iraq, including the regional capital of Mosul. At the same time, ISIS has unleashed and inspired over 140 terrorist attacks across the length of the globe.

Lessons from the Caliphate

Territorial ISIS is gone, but that hardly means that ISIS is fully vanquished. ISIS operatives continue to carry out terrorist attacks, but now as part of a shadowy underground organization rather than as the territorial behemoth it once was.

The concept of resistance continuing after the territorial state is gone is not new; prominent examples include the anti-German Free French and various Polish resistance forces. ISIS is different, however, in not agitating for national autonomy, but playing on its current reputation for brutality and fear. Nor is there is a limited territorial goal; ISIS operatives span the globe, which makes the threat more fluid, and, by extension, more dangerous.

An evacuated woman and her children outside Baghouz, Source: AP Photo/Andrea Rosa

But while ISIS still has the capacity to strike outside of the Middle East, its core is still there and it will certainly take advantage of any unrest such as that in Syria that let it prosper in the first place.

The lesson of ISIS is a warning to all countries about the collateral dangers of a civil war and domestic unrest. Syria and Iraq are not alone in having endured the de facto rule of a brutal terrorist state, and the shared experiences of these countries highlights the danger of weak central government and a volatile political system.

Where Does Syria Go Now?

Following these two lessons, Syria’s top priority needs to be to establish a semblance of normalcy. The Syrian Civil War has now dragged on for over eight years.

Even with the fall of ISIS, the battleground is crowded with the Assad regime, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, the loose series of anti-Assad forces, and a host of major international players such as Turkey and Iran. The United States has started to withdraw its troops, but with so many other factions in play, the war is hardly in its endgame.

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) troop fighters sit outside in the village of Baghouz. Source: AP Photo/Felipe Dana

There is a substantial risk that as the three main Syrian factions continue to fight, they will create a power vacuum that will allow ISIS, or a similar entity, to emerge once again. It is therefore imperative that the Syrian situation is reconciled soon.

Perhaps the greatest roadblocks to a definitive peace in Syria are the interests of the foreign powers now entangled there. However, Turkey, Iran, and Russia have all felt the sting of ISIS in terrorist attacks on their own countries. It is certainly in their interests to prevent such an organization from reemerging too.

The scars of ISIS run deep and have left a dark stain on the history of Syria and Iraq. While the memory of its terror is fresh, and while the news is still punctuated by ISIS terrorist attacks from the shadows, it is the ideal time to push for proper peace talks in Syria.

Considering that ISIS is now a global problem, it should fall on the global community of nations, be it the United Nations or individual states, to advance the cause of a swift settlement in Syria over regional interests.

All credits to the main images go to AP Photo/Andrea Rosa.

Any opinions or thoughts expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Egyptian Streets’ editorial team. To submit an opinion piece, please email [email protected]

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Michael Goodyear is a J.D. Candidate at the University of Michigan Law School. He has an A.B. in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, where he studied Greek and Turkish history. He has been published in a variety of academic and general-interest publications, including Le Monde diplomatique, Subaltern States, and the Michigan Journal of International Law.

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