Syria, Iraq and the future of jihad | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 09.08.2016
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Middle East

Syria, Iraq and the future of jihad

The terror organization 'Islamic State' (IS) has suffered serious losses in Syria, and even more in Iraq. It can no longer count on public support. Yet, it still has a few aces up its sleeve.

For almost two years the jihadist organization "Islamic State" (IS) had ruled over the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad. This spring the Iraqi army began preparing to take it back. In June it was able to do so. Now the army is drawing a siege ring around Mosul. When "IS" conquered the city in June 2014 it was the organization's biggest military and symbolic victory.

Now the tide is beginning to turn. On its march to Mosul, the Iraqi army regained control over a number of small cities en route. The fight for the liberation of the metropolis, home to millions of Iraqis, is expected to be fierce. In June, Germany's permanent representative at the United Nations and President of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Joachim Rücker, warned that up to one million people could be forced to flee Mosul when fighting begins.

The jihadis are also under pressure in Syria. In early June, the Syrian army began attacking "IS" controlled neighborhoods in Aleppo, a city of over one million residents in the north of the country. And the army is exhibiting no regard for the lives of innocent civilians.

Brutality as strategy

The London-based Arab newspaper "Al-Araby Al-Jadeed" estimates that Bashar al-Assad's regime is responsible for the deaths of some 95 percent of all civilians killed in Syria. The paper says that "Islamic State," on the other hand, is responsible for the death of only one percent of the civilian population.

Public perceptions of this are quite different - mainly because "IS" terrorists execute their victims in exceptionally brutal fashion, and have posted many such killings online.

That brutality is coming back to haunt "IS." Since spreading across Syria in 2011, the jihadists have been attacking the civilian population with heretofore unseen brutality.

No support among the people

That has led to the fact that wherever "IS" rule now comes under attack, it quickly collapses from within. Nevertheless, that does not mean that it will be replaced by secular forces. Although most people want a secular Syria, says Bente Scheller, director of the Beirut office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a liberal German think tank, "the more 'denominationalized' the conflict becomes, the more brutally it is conducted, and the less we will see of secular forces."

For that same reason it is highly unlikely that secular Sunnis in Iraq will become the dominant force within their denomination. Divides between religious groups in Iraq are simply too wide, and the often violent rivalry carried out between the Sunni and the Shia in the country is too deeply anchored in the minds of both groups.

In Syria, says Scheller, the Assad regime is far from being able to win back even nominal control of the country. It has not even been able to recapture the suburbs of Damascus from rebels. "They can't do it, even though they have massive support - from Iran, from Hezbollah and from Russia. So how will they be able to take control over the entire country?"

The end of confessionalism

In the long run, the challenges are, above all, political. In Iraq as well as in Syria, confessional rivalries among various parts of the population must be minimized. That can only happen in small steps, in a process that will take decades to complete.

In Syria, there is also the additional problem that the country can only develop a longterm perspective without Bashar al-Assad. After years of ruthless attacks on the people, it is impossible to imagine that they will accept him remaining in power. As long as these conditions are not met, neither country will be immune to the flare up of political and sectarian violence.

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