FREIBURG, GERMANY – The fall of Aleppo last month to the Russia-backed forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has spurred yet another wave of discussion about the prospects for ending the civil war. Despite the recent countrywide ceasefire, guaranteed by Turkey and Russia, between Assad’s forces and most rebel groups, most seem to agree that the conflict is far from over. After all, the Islamic State (ISIS) has not agreed to anything and is not going to.
These observers are right about one thing: the war in Syria will not end until ISIS is defeated. But the belief, espoused by many, that the fall of Raqqa ISIS’s self-declared capital will achieve that goal is, to be frank, wrong.
To be sure, Raqqa is, in the words of the French historian Jean-Pierre Filiu, “the operational command center” for ISIS terror attacks, such as the murder of 12 people at a Christmas market in Berlin last month, or the killing of 39 at an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Day. But the conclusion of Filiu and others that Raqqa’s fall is the key to ending attacks on Europe conflates the Syrian civil war’s causes, symptoms, and solutions. In fact, while ISIS’s short-term prospects are certainly linked to Raqqa’s fate, its long-term survival and influence will likely be decided thousands of miles away.
In many ways, Saudi Arabia is the wellspring of ISIS. Saudis account for the second-largest number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, owing largely to an identity shaped by two key historical developments.
The first development was the adoption by Muhammad ibn Saud, the founder of the First Saudi State, of the radical “puritan” views of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the mid-eighteenth century – views that came to be known as Wahhabism and continue to define Saudi politics and society. The second was King Abdulaziz’s decision in the 1920s to institutionalize the original Wahhabi vision. In the view of many Saudis, ISIS’s rise represents a return to the true origins of the Saudi-Wahhabi project.
And, indeed, it is Wahhabism that forms the core of ISIS’s ideology. ISIS actually distributes copies of texts written by Al-Wahhab in the areas of Iraq and Syria under its control, and draws on many of his most significant lessons. From an ideological perspective, therefore, defeating ISIS requires addressing the role and legacy of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.
From an operational perspective, ISIS’s future will be decided largely in Tunisia, the country that has sent the most foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, and the home country of the Berlin attacker. This partly reflects the authorities’ failure to produce sufficient economic opportunities for its young population, at a time when the country’s nascent democratic transition has raised expectations. As Shams Talbi, a 55-year-old man from the poverty-stricken city of Kasserine, explained to me in 2015, “many young people in our area consider ISIS a means to regain their dignity.”
Reducing the number of fighters flocking to join ISIS’s ranks thus demands the economic and social integration of marginalized regions. Otherwise, young Tunisians (and others) will continue to find themselves so desperate that criminal groups like ISIS look like the most reliable socioeconomic equalizers.
ISIS’s future will also have much to do with France, the European country that supplies the most fighters to the group – a fact that likely reflects its aggressive form of secularism. France is one of only two countries in Europe (Belgium is the other) that bans the full veil in its public schools. And it is the only country in Western Europe (other than Belgium) not to gain the highest rating for democracy, according to Polity data. Seventy percent of France’s prison population is Muslim. All of this lends a hand to extremist recruiters.
The final key determinant of ISIS’s survival will be the willingness of countries, particularly in the West (and especially the United States), to recognize, finally, that oppressive regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are part of the problem, not part of the solution. As one Israeli ex-general exclaimed in 2015 to Michael Oren, his country’s former ambassador to the US, “Why won’t Americans face the truth? To defend Western freedom, they must preserve Middle Eastern tyranny.”
The fall of Raqqa would mark a major victory against ISIS. But it would not mean the end of the group or its violent attacks, which would surely persist, perhaps in new forms. To defeat ISIS once and for all, we need to recognize – and eliminate – its many sources of sustenance.
Lorenzo Kamel, a historian at the University of Freiburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS), is a senior fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and a nonresident associate at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES).