Less than one year after the start of the Syrian Revolution in January 2012, the terrorist group the Al-Nusra Front led by Mohamed Al-Jolani was created.
While this did not state it was in fact a branch of Al-Qaeda in order to facilitate its infiltration of armed Syrian opposition circles including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in December 2012 it was listed by the US as a terrorist group.
By April 2013, the Islamic State (IS) group had arrived in Syria from Iraq, and the leader of IS, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, declared that the Al-Nusra Front had joined him under the name the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL or IS) and that Al-Jolani had earlier been working on his instructions.
Later, Al-Jolani rebelled against IS tutelage and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri instead. The quarrel between the two camps deepened, and they eventually went to war against each other with their final parting occurring in April 2014.
The brutality of IS exceeded all expectations, and it did not exempt even once close comrades in the Al-Nusra Front from its atrocities. It then spread to other countries such as Yemen, Libya, Pakistan and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, as well as carrying out a series of savage attacks in Europe.
IS used primitive violence to terrorise its enemies, staging decapitations and other public executions, enslaving women, recruiting child soldiers and destroying religious shrines and historic sites in the areas under its control to achieve its goal of creating a so-called “caliphate”.
Between 2013-2015, IS controlled large resources and heavy weapons after occupying many cities in Iraq and Syria, including Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa and Deir Al-Zor in Syria. It took control of oil wells in Deir Al-Zor and grain silos in Hasaka and robbed banks and kidnapped people for ransom.
It controlled an estimated 91,000 square km of territory in Iraq and Syria and commanded tens of thousands of fighters from around the world, most of them based in Syria, including 5,000 combatants from Europe.
The group established a structure that was close to that of a state, collecting taxes, printing money and having a budget running into hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Syrian city of Raqqa became the capital of IS in March 2013 once the Syrian government forces had withdrawn from there without a fight, raising suspicions about links between the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and this international terrorist group.
Many military officers close to the former Baath Party regime in Iraq who had links to the Syrian regime became leading figures in IS.
The group made the marginalisation of Sunni Arab populations in Iraq and Syria the pretext for it to spread after the US created a ripe environment for the proliferation of Shiite militias in Iraq.
Some Syrians who had rebelled against the Al-Assad regime also hoped the group would provide them with protection in areas liberated from regime control.
However, the hopes of those who relied on IS were swiftly dashed due to the group’s ruthless violence.
An International Coalition to combat IS was formed in September 2014 led by the US, and IS began to falter after it was defeated at Ain Al-Arab (Kobane) in February 2015 at the hands of Kurdish militias allied with the US and US airstrikes.
Many pointers indicate that regional and international intelligence agencies have been using IS for their own purposes in Syria, and these have competed to recruit its leaders to make gains or to prevent others from gaining ground.
It became commonplace to see IS fighters and heavy weapons travelling across the desert for hundreds of km without being intercepted, despite their being surrounded by their so-called enemies.
Former Iraqi military officers likely caused the greatest security breaches in the group, because they were easy to manipulate by international and regional intelligence agencies.
The latter have included the intelligence services of the Syrian regime, which have been able to reach out to these officers due to their common Baathist links and their joint interest in resisting the US presence in Iraq.
The Syrian regime bought oil from IS through middlemen and allowed IS fighters to pass through areas under its control. IS fought against the Syrian opposition side-by-side with regime forces at several locations in the country.
Iran also recruited many fighters into IS through its relations with Al-Qaeda members residing in the country. The Turkish opposition accused the Turkish government of allowing IS fighters to pass through Turkish airports and of turning a blind eye to their activities, something that Turkey has vehemently denied.
Russia’s relationship with IS was clear, since IS combatants from Chechnya and the Central Asia republics formed a core force in the group’s structure, including Abu Omar Al-Shishani, the former IS defence minister.
Today, the US is dealing with the last pockets of IS in Syria in Baghouz in the far east of the country through fighters belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that are affiliated to the Kurds.
Hundreds of IS fighters have surrendered, but their fate is largely unknown. Some remain in tunnels or caves while the SDF tries to talk them into coming out.
The fate of the thousands of IS prisoners is also mostly unknown amid differences on how to prosecute them and some countries evading their responsibilities by refusing to take back their citizens who were members of IS. Some senior IS leaders have also disappeared even after they were captured.
The Kurdish militias who captured the IS combatants are not transparent, and there is concern that IS members will be smuggled to other unstable locations. The state set up by IS has been all but extinguished, but this does not mean that the group has been eliminated.
The fanatical ideology espoused by IS is only the tip of the iceberg of a plethora of unresolved problems in Syria and Iraq. Confronting this radicalism through military action avoids dealing with the heart of the matter, since in countries where dictatorship, poverty and backwardness reign, fanaticism will surely find a way to re-emerge in future.
As long as the process of transition from despotism to democracy in Syria fails, while IS can be curtailed by military means it cannot be eradicated. IS may be dormant for now, but in the absence of political solutions to the crises in the region, it will surely once again rear its ugly head.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The demise of Islamic State?