Jacob Shapiro, teaching

Shapiro: What the fall of Raqqa means for the future of ISIS

Oct. 20, 2017 4:23 p.m.

Jacob Shapiro, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, has tracked ISIS since its emergence. 

American-backed forces say they have taken control of Raqqa, the northern Syrian city that has been the de facto capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Jacob Shapiro, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, has tracked the militant group since its emergence. He studies political violence, economic and political development in conflict zones, and security policy.

Below he answers questions about recent events and the future of the group.

What are the major implications of the apparent defeat of ISIS in Raqqa?

I think you will see a few things in the next few months. The first will be increasing terrorist attacks in the major cities of Iraq where the group still has personnel. In order to keep its remaining personnel motivated, the group needs to remain active. The last time it was beaten back militarily, it resorted to episodic terrorist attacks. I would expect more of the same now.

The second will be media attention turning to Idlib, the area to the west of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) territory, and the last region with significant territory controlled by Islamist militias. Turkey has recently sent troops into the area to forestall Kurdish influence, and the Syrian government is stating that it will soon begin operations in the area. I would expect this to play out similarly to the battle for Aleppo in that it will be a long, slow siege by government forces involving tremendous costs to civilians.

The third thing we will see is tacit negotiations between U.S.-backed SDF and the Syrian government over the future trajectory of the area between the Euphrates River and Syria’s border with Turkey. The dominant party in the SDF is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG militia, and its associated political party, which is pushing for a federal solution to Syria’s civil war in which the regions it now controls (including Raqqa now and likely other towns along the Euphrates towards the Iraqi border in the near future) are nominally part of Syria but have a tremendous amount to autonomy. That solution is unlikely to be acceptable to the Syria government or the Islamist militias that control Idlib province to the East of the Kurdish regions. I think there is a reasonable chance that some accommodation can be reached between the Kurds and the Syrian government as both groups’ patrons (the Russians and Iranians supporting the government and the U.S. supporting the SDF) have strong reasons to avoid direct conflict between their proxies.

You said in 2015 that ISIS would 'eventually collapse from its inherent failings.' Has that happened?

Yes, I think it has. The group always had an unrealistic agenda. Running a mostly conventional war requires economic resources commensurate with your enemies. ISIS tried to take on several of the major powers in the Middle East and their foreign backers simultaneously, while drawing on the small resource base to be found in the region between Baghdad and the major urban areas of Syria. That was never going to work, no matter how well the group managed the territory under its control, but the group did not even do a good job of managing its territory and resources.

Will ISIS continue to pose a threat to the region and the West? Does it have prospects for renewed growth elsewhere? 

Yes, the group will continue to be a threat in terms of terrorist attacks. I do not think it has significant prospects for renewed growth anywhere, but I suspect it will stick around as a terrorist threat for many years yet.

What lessons can American policymakers take from the fight against ISIS?

One of the most important ones is patience. Rather than becoming intensely involved early on, the U.S. policy was essentially one of containment and support to local allies combined with the use of airpower against leadership targets in the group. That worked after a number of years. The costs were tragic for the population of eastern Syria, to be sure, but it is far from clear that a more intense U.S. involvement against ISIS earlier would have yielded a more durable solution.

What does this development mean for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government?

It does not change things much for them. President Bashar and his government already looked fairly stable and like they were on a trajectory to survive this civil war. What this does do is put them in a position where they need to make some decisions regarding how to address the Kurdish regions of Syria. Those areas are moving aggressively to begin holding various kinds of elections in order to build international support and legitimacy. I suspect the Syrian government sees a closing window of opportunity to re-establish control over those regions but recognizes that doing so would put it in direct conflict with U.S. proxies with unpredictable consequences. One hopes they will look to the example of Iraq, where substantial autonomy for the Kurdish regions has not created problems for the central government in controlling its core areas of support, and decide that direct control over the territory is not worth the risks.

What are the major implications of the recent ambush in Niger in which four American soldiers were killed? Are we seeing ISIS contract in one region of the world, only to expand in another?

I do not think the two are directly connected in the sense that the group has some means to reallocate personnel and other resources from Syria to Africa. There has long been a range of militant groups operating in the sparsely populated regions of the Sahel. This particular attack is thought to have been conducted by an ISIS-affiliated group operating out of Mali. When we say “ISIS-affiliated,” it’s important to be clear on what that means. It’s basically a group of fighters who had been part of previous Islamist militias operating in Mali who claimed the mantle of ISIS and went through some process of getting the group’s endorsement. It does not mean that a group of personnel from the main ISIS organization in Syria and Iraq traveled to the Sahel and then built a local militia. So we should think of this as a tragic realization of the Islamist militant threat in the Sahel against which local militaries (in Chad, Niger and Mali) and French forces have been engaged since 2012, and not as some evidence of dramatic expansion by ISIS.