West Faces Long War with Islamic State Group

22 July, 2017

"If they are in Raqqa, they're gonna die in Raqqa."

Those are the words of Brett McGurk, the United States' top representative to the coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS) group.

Last month, McGurk spoke about IS forces in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa. He declared their foreign fighters would be targeted.

More than 2,000 IS militants are believed to be fighting in the city, which is the group's self-declared capital. Many of them are thought to be from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. But even after the militants are defeated in Raqqa in the coming weeks, IS will still have an estimated 13,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. American officials and independent security experts warn they are a threat to the area.

Bruce Hoffman and other observers expect the Islamic State to return to its earlier form as a terrorist and rebel group. Most IS leaders have not stayed in Raqqa to fight. They did not stay to fight in Mosul either. They fled both cities to smaller towns along the Iraqi border with Syria in the Euphrates River Valley and Anbar province in Iraq.

Experts say IS hopes to act like other Islamist organizations, which were able to survive after being defeated by U.S. military forces in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

Observers say the group still controls territory both in west and east Iraq. They believe IS will attack government forces from villages and hiding places, as it began to do in April.

Whether it can be successful depends on the effectiveness of anti-IS security forces on both sides of the border and the support of people in the area.

Displaced people, who fled from homes are seen at Hamam al-Alil camp south of Mosul, Iraq July 13, 2017.
Displaced people, who fled from homes are seen at Hamam al-Alil camp south of Mosul, Iraq July 13, 2017.

Many Sunni Muslims are unhappy with heavy-handed security operations against militants, revenge killings and religious-based governance. Observers say such actions risk feeding into the Sunni disaffection that fueled the rise of IS in the first place.

Experts worry that neither Iraqi nor U.S. officials have developed clear plans to bring security to areas taken from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"We should be concerned about the lack of stabilization plans for territory from which ISIS is expelled," says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "We are in grave danger of once again winning the war but losing the peace," he adds.

U.S. officials would appear to be taking more of a hands-off policy in Raqqa once the U.S.-aided Syrian Democratic Forces have gained control of the city.

VOA received an email from a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM. The email read "When ISIS has been defeated in Raqqa, authority will rest with the Raqqa Civilian Council and security will be maintained by the Raqqa Internal Security Force."

When asked whether U.S. officials have discussed the treatment of suspended militants, CENTCOM said that local officials are responsible for the detainees. But it added, "The Coalition supports the laws of armed conflict and works hard in training to ensure partner forces are aware of and understand the requirement for a professional fighting force to abide with these laws."

Violations are already being reported. Locals say some people believe that they must be IS members or supporters since they remained in the city under militant rule.

In Iraq, rights groups have already documented revenge killings by Iranian-influenced Shi'ite militias. And a video of Iraqis questioning suspected militants in Mosul adds to the concern of rights groups. They accuse the Iraqis of using brutal interrogation methods against the suspects.

Like al-Qaida, IS has established militant groups in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, notably in Libya and Egypt. Last year, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi told followers that his group would defeat efforts to oust it from its major population centers in Syria and Iraq. But he appeared to be preparing for their eventual loss by urging foreigners to fight for IS affiliates.

One of the big questions is whether militants will continue showing interest in Islamic State after its talk of nation-building has been crushed.

Now, al-Qaida will likely seek to show that it is the world's top jihadist group. Some experts say al-Qaida has already been preparing the 28-year-old son of former leader Osama bin Laden as its new leader. Hamza Bin Laden has appeared in four recent propaganda videos for the group.

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Jamie Dettmer wrote this story for VOANews. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

gonna – expression used in writing to represent the sound of the phrase going to when it is spoken quickly

revenge – n. the act of doing something to hurt someone because that person did something that hurt you

stabilize – v. to become stable or to make (something) stable, such as to stop quickly changing, increasing, getting worse, etc.

grave – adj. very serious; requiring or causing serious thought or concern

authority – n. the power to give orders or make decisions; the power or right to direct or control someone or something

maintain – v. to cause (something) to exist or continue without changing; to provide support for (someone or something)

abide – v. to accept or bear

brutal – adj. extremely cruel or harsh