Islamic State: Apocalypse Postponed?

by Derek Davison

When the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) began publishing an online magazine in 2014, it named the new publication Dabiq, after the north Syrian town by the same name, which ISIS captured later that same year. The town of Dabiq is situated a short distance northeast of pre-war Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, and an even shorter distance south of the Turkey-Syria border. Its location is strategic enough that it was the site of one major battle in Islamic history (an Ottoman victory in 1516 that all but destroyed the Mamluk Dynasty then ruling Egypt and Syria).

But IS’s interest in this small hamlet of fewer than 5,000 people before the war began has little to do with its location and nothing to do with its history. Rather, ISIS is interested in Dabiq’s future. Dabiq occupies an outsized place in Islamic eschatology, similar to the role the ancient site of Megiddo plays for many Christians. In a Hadith (report of a saying or deed attributed to an early Islamic luminary) published in a ninth-century collection called Sahih Muslim, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have named Dabiq as one of two possible sites (the other is in Turkey and outside IS’s control) where a great End Times battle will take place between “the Romans” and “an army of the people of the earth.” IS, having identified the current day as the End Times and itself as the “army of the people of earth,” has built up its propaganda around the idea that it will defeat the “Roman” invaders at Dabiq.

Real-world events have a way of upsetting even the best-laid apocalyptic plans, however. IS’s plans for Dabiq were dealt a serious blow over the weekend when a Syrian rebel force, with heavy support from Turkish air power and armor, drove an estimated 2,000 IS fighters out of Dabiq and seized control of the town. The Turkish-led assault had some of the makings of IS’s great battle—Turkey, after all, occupies much of what would have been left of the Roman Empire at the time the Hadith in question was compiled—but the result certainly doesn’t seem to carry any apocalyptic undertones. Instead, by driving IS out of Dabiq, Turkey achieved the more prosaic goals of establishing control over its border with Syria and putting its forces in position to advance on the larger IS stronghold at nearby al-Bab, or even, maybe, on besieged eastern Aleppo.

In addition to driving IS out of some of its last remaining border pockets, Turkey’s invasion of Syria—“Operation Euphrates Shield”—also seems to be contributing to discord in the ranks of other jihadi extremist groups fighting in Syria, including two of the largest, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) and Ahrar al-Sham. JFS, formerly the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham have been closely allied through their Jaysh al-Fatah alliance, which controls much of Syria’s Idlib Province. But Ahrar al-Sham announced in late September that it would “cooperate” with Turkey’s operation, putting some distance between it and JFS, and a series of clashes in Idlib appear to have widened the gap between Jaysh al-Fatah’s component groups. Ahrar al-Sham has been openly fighting Jund al-Aqsa, a group that broke away from Nusra late last year and is believed to have had links to IS. However, earlier this month, it pledged itself to JFS in an effort to obtain protection against the much larger Ahrar al-Sham. JFS has reportedly brokered a ceasefire between the two groups, but the cohesion of the rebel forces in Idlib certainly appears to be in a state of flux.

For IS, meanwhile, the loss of Dabiq can be spun as a temporary setback: Apocalypse Postponed rather than Apocalypse Cancelled. But there’s no denying that, on an ideological level, losing the site of its planned victory over “Roman” invaders is a loss almost as significant as the material loss of one of its major cities—Raqqa in Syria or Mosul in Iraq.

Speaking of Mosul

While Turkey and its rebel proxies were taking Dabiq this weekend, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the beginning of the offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which IS seized in 2014.

“The bell of liberty has been rung and operations to liberate Mosul have started,” said Al Abadi, while wearing a military uniform and flanked by senior Iraqi military officers. “Very soon we will be among you to raise the Iraqi flag.”

Iraqi and Kurdish forces, supported by US air power and advisers, are attempting to encircle Mosul before directly assaulting the city. Several questions about this operation, however, remain unanswered. Iraq’s largely Shi?a Popular Mobilization Units are participating in the operation, for example, and this is a source of some concern for Iraq’s Sunni Arab politicians. But it’s not clear to what extent they, or Kurdish fighters for that matter, will be allowed to participate in the final assault on the city itself. It’s also not clear what role, if any, Turkish forces that have been training Sunni militias in nearby Bashiqa will have in the operation—Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that they will be involved, but Abadi’s views on that subject probably differ from Erdogan’s.

Still, even with those lingering challenges—and acknowledging that IS is likely to put up more of a fight in Mosul than it has in losing the other Iraqi cities it once controlled like Ramadi and Fallujah—the would-be caliphate will probably fail to hold on to Mosul. This means that, although we may not be approaching the End of Days, we may be approaching the end of IS’s days as a political entity in control of significant parts of Syria and/or Iraq (its days as a terrorist network, on the other hand, appear likely to continue indefinitely).

On to Raqqa?

However, what happens once Mosul falls is still unclear. With IS out of Mosul, and with its Libyan outpost in Sirte also seemingly near liberation, the next—perhaps the last—logical target would be IS’s “capital,” Raqqa. Although the Mosul operation has begun with a few details still up in the air, when it comes to Raqqa almost everything is still up in the air.

The only military force in eastern Syria capable of carrying out an operation against Raqqa is the Kurdish YPG-dominated and American-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but the practicality of a Kurdish force taking and occupying Raqqa are problematic to say the least. Turkey will undoubtedly object to the YPG’s participation in a Raqqa assault, particularly if it involves more American arms going to Kurdish fighters. Moreover, given that most of Raqqa’s population is Arab, it’s unlikely that a predominantly Kurdish force could peaceably occupy and hold the city. The Kurdish elements of the SDF could participate in liberating Raqqa but then leave the occupation to the SDF’s non-Kurdish elements, but that would mean that the occupying force would lose at least half its strength and be vulnerable to an IS counter-attack and/or a potential assault from Bashar al-Assad’s army. Turkey and its rebel proxies could eventually move toward Raqqa, but that would take considerable time and the movement of Turkish forces further east than the YPG would probably find acceptable. The United States has been struggling to broker an accord between the YPG and Turkey, and no matter how the Raqqa operation is handled it seems likely to make that struggle harder.

Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin reported on Sunday on a debate within the Obama administration about slowing down the planning for an assault on Raqqa until the mechanics of such an operation can be fully worked out. There are obvious advantages to attacking Raqqa very soon after IS loses Mosul. IS would have little time to regroup, for example, and fighters fleeing Mosul would be unable to bolster Raqqa’s defenses. But absent an army that can take and peacefully hold the city without causing more tension within the fragile anti-IS coalition than already exists, it’s difficult to see how a Raqqa operation could be attempted anytime soon.

Photo: Iraqi soldiers in a military exercise (courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense via Flickr).

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.