In response to the advances in Mosul, Daesh attacked Kirkuk but were repelled. They seem to be running out of Iraqi options. The day after Daesh, when the federal government has retaken all the territory taken by Daesh, is looking closer every day. But this victory will not be the end of the war. It’s helpful to think of Daesh and AQ as competing brand franchises of Islamic extremism, and as a franchise Daesh’s defeat in Iraq will allow Al Qaeda (AQ) to overtake them. AQ is advancing again and Daesh need something to get them back in the game. There are two dynamics that will help them recover. The first is that Daesh will be displaced but not destroyed. As I have written before, Daesh cannot be destroyed but only changed in form. So the question is: where does it go? The second is the election of Donald Trump in the US.
Daesh need to attack somewhere new in order to regain momentum and take over from the resurgent AQ brand. If you look around the Middle East the obvious place to move back to is Syria. But that would actually expose the group to the likely onslaught that will come from the Trump regime. So Daesh will likely find a new state to undermine and destroy. The weakest state in the region and the state that is open to be shattered from within is Lebanon. With the presence of Iranian proxies this approach also gives the group the opportunity to take the fight directly to their enemy. It would open a new front in the civil war within Islam and with the massive refugee population in the country the human cost could dwarf what we have seen in Iraq or even Syria.
As they sit in their caves, the leadership of Daesh and AQ and the other groups will be planning for a series of attacks on US targets in January. Their intention, as laid out in the Manual of Savagery, will be to draw the US back into the ground war in the Middle East. There will be a joint US-Russian onslaught on Daesh and their allies but they need something else to trick Trump into committing troops once more to the region. Trump could of course quail, and like all bullies when confronted with the reality of danger, buckle. There is a great episode in the first season of the West Wing, in which President Bartlett’s favorite doctor is killed in Jordan and he wants the fury of the US to rain down on those responsible. What, he asks, is the virtue of a proportionate response? The same exchange – or something like it – will take place after an attack in January. Trump will be either be the bully who when he looks at the reality of actually killing people pulls back, or the bully who does not understand the consequences of this actions. My guess is that he will listen to the most extreme option and see what happens. This will play directly into the hands of Daesh who once more will be the go to brand of Islamists in the Middle East. Even if he does not commit ground troops, a massive escalation of air attacks and even more indiscriminate use of drones, will have a similar impact. All the franchises will be refreshed and the victory in Iraq will end up looking like a pyrrhic victory for the Iraqis and for the West.
Indeed, it might be even worse. If Trump does what he has promised to do, a renewed Daesh franchise could destroy the fragile post-Daesh reconciliation process and return Iraq to its near civil war position. All of the Obama administration’s slow and careful work will fall apart. The real wisdom of Obama’s approach has been the recognition that this is a long war. It will be longer than even Afghanistan, the longest war the US has ever fought. It is a war with a myriad of front lines that are both military and ideological. It is war with weapons that are words and images as much as bullets and bombs. The purpose of the war is to separate, isolate and destroy the extremists while building bridges and connections with the rest of the Islamic world. It is not a war against Islam, it is war within Islam. It is the peaceful majority that must be empowered to prevail. That will not be done by blanket bombing. What are you going to blanket bomb? If the conflict’s new front line becomes Lebanon then we may look back as the Obama era as a golden age of contained conflict in the region and relative peace and security at home. In addition to targeting Lebanon, Daesh will take the fight directly to the West now. In their competition to lead the extremists, they will need victories in western capitals and most especially in the US to pull ahead. And with Trump in charge the US response will write its own manual of savagery into the history of the Middle East.