The specter of ISIS lingers in Syria

Territorial ISIS is gone, but that hardly means that the terrorist group is fully vanquished.

WOMEN AND their families surrender in the last ISIS-held area in Syria last month (photo credit: REUTERS)
WOMEN AND their families surrender in the last ISIS-held area in Syria last month
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The once-vast caliphate of 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.
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 globe.
Territorial ISIS is gone, but that hardly means that the terrorist group is fully vanquished. Its 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.
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.
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.
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 be reconciled soon. Perhaps the greatest roadblocks to a definitive peace in Syria are the interests of the foreign powers now entangled there. Turkey, Iran, and Russia, however, have all felt the sting of ISIS in terrorist attacks on their own countries. It is certainly also in their interests to prevent such an organization from reemerging.
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.
The writer is a J.D. candidate at the University of Michigan Law School and 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.