The rise of populists and of IS stem from the same root cause: disillusionment with “the system”. That is why the defeat of IS will take so much more than just military force.
The battle for Mosul has been long and bloody. The advances made in the region over the past year are significant, yet much remains to be done. The noose is tightening on so-called Islamic State, and it is only a matter of time before funds and resources dry up and the entire terrorist organisation will dissolve. However the key issue is not the militancy of IS in practical terms but rather how to defeat the ideology that drives them. Mosul provides the perfect opportunity to try and understand their context and motivations.
This advance has only been possible after concentrated bombing campaigns eliminating the generals of the old Ba’athist party (who supported Saddam Hussein) and orchestrated IS’s rise throughout the region. As a result of their deaths there is a lack of governing experience, and the hold of Al-Baghdadi (IS’s leader) is tenuous at best.
In Mosul, the Iraqi army had started to engage in the city proper after having secured the hinterlands and supply routes through the east of the country. However as it stands IS is defending its possessions through the use of human shields, mined streets and suicide bombers – the battle will be bloody and long drawn. Added to this are the war crimes perpetrated by our erstwhile allies the Sunni tribesmen and Shia militia, who have been accused by Amnesty International of torturing fleeing citizens and captured militants as well as exerting violent tendencies against former IS held villages.
In Syria the battle in Aleppo rages on between government and rebel forces but, with Russian and Turkish assistance, the town of Dabiq in the north has been retaken. Dabiq has been crucial to the propaganda efforts of IS as they portrayed themselves as the natural successors to an ancient Caliphate; the control and defence of this town was of paramount importance in Islamic mythos and its loss will hamper the ideological and divine motivations for IS recruits. The multiple defeats handed to IS are a great contrast to their biggest victory – the conquest of Mosul (Nineveh), the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire.
Ideology, thought and ideas have been notoriously hard to defeat, and while US Republicans insist that naming it “radical Islamic terrorism” will magically resolve all problems, the issue stems closely from youth disenfranchisement seen across the globe. The rise of populists such as Trump, Farage and perhaps Sanders, has seen anti-establishment sentiment come to the fore of political discourse, yet little has been done to combat the core issues surrounding its rise; inequality and today’s societal pressures which are central to political upheaval. We, the human race, have become more insular, protectionist and nationalistic, and given that this, our generation, will be the first generation since the start of the start of the 20th century to be poorer than its parents, this is, what some would call, a regression in the development of mankind. Others may label it the promotion of identity and personal freedoms over the control of the state and that economic inequality is a suitable price for individual freedoms.
There has been a shift in the Overton window, distinctly right in the case of most nations, and therefore it is hardly a surprise that youths have become disillusioned and disenfranchised (by their own choice or society’s). In this case it is Sunni Muslim youths who seek to regain purpose and identity through an ideology that promotes values perceived to be common yet under-represented. Ideology in this scenario leads to marginalisation and in turn extremism; oppression, or the appearance of oppression, can convince isolated individuals their motivations and convictions are inherently correct and action must be taken.
As it stands the battle for Mosul will continue for many days, and there appears to be an avenue of escape for militants – across the plains to Ar-Raqqah. The quasi-capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate in eastern Syria appears to be, with the on-going battle for Aleppo and tightening of the noose around Mosul, IS’s last stand. The need for a decisive victory may become a pretext for an invasion or insertion of a military force into Syria which will cause increasing hostilities with Russia, Syria, and Iran and to a lesser extent, Turkey. We must be aware that an IS retreat doesn’t mean the end of the ideology, but likewise we must bear in mind another Middle East intervention only stokes the flames.