The prospect of wresting the last territorial strongholds from the self-styled Islamic State extremist group—within weeks in Iraq and possibly within months in Syria—lends urgency to the question of how to address the lingering swirl of internal, regional and global conflicts. In a discussion today on Facebook Live, USIP Middle East and North Africa Director Elie Abouaoun, Distinguished Scholar Robin Wright and Senior Policy Scholar Mona Yacoubian explored the multiple factors that will continue to keep the region off balance without comprehensive efforts tailored to conditions on the ground.

Syrian soldiers and children at a checkpoint in the besieged and devastated city of Homs, Syria, March 23, 2014.
Syrian soldiers and children at a checkpoint in the besieged and devastated city of Homs, Syria, March 23, 2014. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Sergey Ponomarev

“The ideology will not go away,” Abouaoun said. “What we know from our field observation is the radicalization and the ideology is increasing – in Iraq and Syria but also in other places. So what we need to do is think about how to address the drivers of this radicalization.”

They vary from one place to another depending on political grievances, social and economic exclusion, lack of education and religious discourse, among other factors, he said.

Wright noted that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, at its peak held territory in each country about the size of the U.S. state of Indiana or the country of Jordan.

“The grave danger, of course, is that, if there isn’t the kind of policy in place, the solutions developed by both countries … that we could beat ISIS but still lose the war, still not make the peace,” Wright said.

The U.S. State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other international agencies and organizations can help Iraq and Syria recover security, basic services and governance, Yacoubian said.

“In the absence of those things, you really create fertile ground for a re-emergence of ISIS 2.0,” she said.

Some 50,000 foreign fighters joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and 20 percent to 30 percent have returned home as it lost ground, creating new problems for their countries of origin, as well. Almost half of those who came from the U.K., for example, have returned, Wright said.

In the meantime, ISIS has become a global movement, responsible for or inspiring attacks from Europe to the Philippines, and in the U.S. from Florida to California, Wright said.

Wright noted that a USIP study published in December found that, with each generation, the time it takes to mobilize a force such as ISIS—recruiting fighters and getting them onto the battlefield—is halved, and these forces represent a wider array of countries and the agenda becomes more ambitious.

The experts also took questions from Facebook and Twitter on issues such as the implications of a planned independence referendum by Iraqi Kurdistan, how to reintegrate returning fighters and what happens to the diversity that once characterized the rich cultures of Iraq and Syria.

Related Publications

Syria’s Ghalia Rahal: Surviving War, Building Peace

Syria’s Ghalia Rahal: Surviving War, Building Peace

Thursday, May 23, 2019

By: Palwasha L. Kakar; James Rupert

Amid the traumas of Syria’s war, women like Ghalia Rahal are building an unprecedented role in peace talks over their country’s future. Rahal—the founder of a network of women’s centers in northwest Syria—has helped energize a Syrian women’s movement despite threats from extremists, attacks on her workplaces, and the assassination of her son, a journalist. Now, Rahal and her women’s network in Syria’s Idlib Province face an extreme threat—the Syrian government military offensive against the province that has killed hundreds and displaced nearly 200,000 people.

Gender

A Visit to Post-ISIS Syria: Human Crises Pose Risk

A Visit to Post-ISIS Syria: Human Crises Pose Risk

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

By: Robin Wright

After losing its last territory in Syria on March 23, 2019, the Islamic State quickly reclaimed global attention with the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka on April 21 and a video tape of its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on April 29. The jihadi movement is now shifting focus to its ISIS branches, or “provinces,” in Africa, Asia and Europe. Baghdadi signaled ISIS’s expansion by formally embracing two Sunni extremist groups in Mali and Burkina Faso. But the Islamic State’s human core—more than 100,000 fighters and their families, including children—remains clustered in the rubble of its former “caliphate” in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, they are detained in makeshift prisons, a hospital and refugee-style camps in the desert of northeastern Syria. USIP Senior Fellow Robin Wright made a rare tour of northeastern Syria to interview men and women who were part of the ISIS caliphate and to assess the risks posed by the post-caliphate crisis.

Violent Extremism

The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society

The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

By: Ahmad Shuja Jamal

Since 2013, as many as 50,000 Afghans have fought in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun, a pro-Assad force organized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Based on field interviews with former fighters and their families, this Special Report examines the motivations of members of the Afghan Shia Hazara communities who joined the Fatemiyoun as well as the economic and political challenges of reintegrating them into Afghan society.

Civilian-Military Relations; Fragility & Resilience

View All Publications