With Isis in retreat and the political and military situation in the Middle East more fluid than it has been for years, we asked leading experts what the future holds for the region – and terrorist-targeted capitals.
The Islamic State is shrinking. It has lost more than half its territory in Iraq and more than a quarter in Syria. Its centres of power, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, are – at the time of writing – under sustained attack. For the first time since 2014, when it swept into Mosul and its ambitions to create a new caliphate began to be taken seriously, the movement is on the back foot.
Yet military victories alone will not end the threat. In Iraq , much depends on the Shia-dominated government finding a way to deal with the grievances of Sunni Muslims. A fresh descent into sectarianism will only lead to yet more insecurity. Meanwhile, in Syria there will be no shortage of angry young disenfranchised Sunnis willing to continue the fight against president Bashar al-Assad.
All this means that the short-term threat that Isis carries in Europe and the US is unlikely to diminish. While there are fewer westerners joining training camps in Iraq or Syria, the Isis leadership will continue to encourage followers in western cities to carry out attacks. With politically and religiously charged elections due in the Netherlands, France and Germany – and with a new, untested president in the US – the threat of terrorism will keep security agencies up at night in 2017. Here five experts answer the five key questions for the year ahead.
Emma Sky: When Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq fell in the summer of 2003, Emma Sky – then working for the British Council – answered a call from the British government for volunteers to help out for three months with the country’s reconstruction. Much to her surprise she was immediately put in charge of the region of Kirkuk; she went on to work as a political adviser to the top American generals between 2007 and 2010. She is currently a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
“This year will see the liberation of Mosul but that is the easy part. The humanitarian fallout from the operation is tragic and once Mosul is liberated, it’s going to be tough. The coalition that has been put together is for a military initiative; they are all using it for their own ends.
“For the Kurds it’s about taking more territory and rivalries in Kurdistan will also increase between the two main groups. Then there are the Shia militia that have now been legalised and are positioning for political power. All the different Shia parties will be manoeuvering and none of this will contribute towards good governance. The security situation in Iraq should improve but we should expect Isis, or whatever is left of it, to revert to terrorist attacks. I’m not optimistic. Hopefully the killing will go down but dealing with the aftermath – the reconstruction of cities, enabling people to get back to their homes – will be difficult. There’s little likelihood of addressing the conditions that enabled the rise of Isis in the first place.
“My hope is that the regimes in the Middle East look to address the needs of their young populations: how to give them more opportunities and employment. They’re more interconnected with the rest of the world than ever. If these regimes don’t start addressing their dreams then a whole new round of revolutions will begin again in a few years.”
Lina Khatib: The head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, Lina Khatib has also run think-tanks in Beirut and the US.
“The situation in Syria is far worse than in Iraq. In Iraq there is something to build on; in Syria it’s very complicated. Defeat for Isis in Iraq may even help Isis in Syria. The Popular Mobilisation Forces [Shia militia] fighting Isis in Iraq are likely to play a role against Isis in Syria too. Assad invited them in and Iran, which backs them, seems to welcome that but their interference can only escalate the conflict and provide Isis with a further raison d’être.
“Western countries seem to favour the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] as their partner in the fight against Isis. But the SDF is mainly composed of Kurds [25,000 Kurds to 5,000 Arabs]. So there is the potential for sectarian and ethnic tensions.
“As the regime takes more areas we are seeing the decline of moderate rebels like the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This leaves groups such as Isis with fewer challengers. Isis has primarily been fighting the FSA, not the regime; if the FSA weakens, Isis gains.”
Peter Neumann: The German journalist and academic’s latest book is ‘Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West’. He is professor of security studies at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and has served as director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation since its foundation in early 2008.
“Isis leaders have told potential recruits in Europe and the US, ‘Don’t come to Syria and Iraq; stay where you are and try to support us.’ In the short term this might lead to an increased effort to incite terrorist attacks in Europe. The US is more isolated from that threat but European security agencies are moving too slowly. There are big gaps in European nations’ data sharing. Small countries like Belgium do not have the capacity or experience of counterterrorism to deal with the threat they are faced with. Isis is aware of that.
“In Germany, Isis is keen to inspire or use a refugee because they know that would polarise society. It understands the fault lines in societies and how to leverage them; a huge incentive is all the elections in Europe next year. They want polarisation. They want to help extreme right-wing forces into power.
“In the medium and long term it’s good that Isis will be deprived of its Middle Eastern bases. It’s going to get better eventually – but it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Pål S Refsdal: A Norwegian film-maker who has been embedded with a range of rebel groups, including al-Qaeda in Syria.
“Five years from now the Middle East, in many ways, will be worse off than it was before the start of the Arab Spring.
“Forget about the Israel-Palestine conflict or the hyped-up war between western countries and Islamic extremists. The real fault line will not be between the Arab world and the West but between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. And if an empowered Iran decides to bring the war onto Saudi Arabian soil, that is when the Middle East will blow up for real.”
Robert S Ford: The last US ambassador to Syria, Robert S Ford was posted to Damascus in 2011 just before the originally peaceful uprising against President Assad began. He was forced to leave the country in 2011. He is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“The way you stop it is by marginalising extremists. To do that you have to have a government that local people accept, that is accountable and that delivers improvements. In Mosul, after Isis clears out, who’s going to govern the city? Are they going to govern in a wise way and reopen schools and hospitals and give people a sense that life is going back to normal?
“Local people have to be involved in the process of choosing that government. We can’t just arm one faction and say, ‘You’re in charge,’ which tends to be what the Americans do. The Trump idea that this is a military problem detached from economics, hope and governance is unrealistic and will play into the hands of extremist recruiters.
“This is no longer your father’s Middle East. Young people are plugged into the wider world and they know when they are being abused by corrupt governments. Thinking we can rely on authoritarian, corrupt local government to manage and control populations is no longer realistic. The world has changed. That’s what we should learn from the Arab Spring. I’m not sure Trump has learned that, however. We’ll see.”