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With Daesh launching predatory attacks in Europe and across the world more commonly, public opinion understands the militaristic terrorist threat as a fact of modern life. This assumption, however, is mistaken, and misses the entire reason that Daesh has survived for so long, writes Cory Turner. The evolution of its strategy towards mass insurgent attacks signals its inevitable downfall, not its strength.
It is an easy assumption to make that the rise of Daesh is an immovable fact of the international system today. It has, after all, survived for years despite a – albeit slow and reluctant – coordinated effort by a grand coalition led by the world superpower. The continuous attraction of Daesh from a select minority of people breeding its war effort constructed the idea that Daesh is only growing in strength. Foreign fighters continue to feed the group's barbarism, and a string of both symbolic and strategically significant victories in recent years have very effectively imprinted into the public consciousness that it is simply a problem that will refuse to disappear.
The pressures which have been mounting against the group, however, are finally – and noticeably – haunting it. Despite the psychological impact of the group's attacks since 2015, most noticeably for Europeans after those in Paris, Daesh is only weakening as it is forced back against mounting opposition and a reorganised and professionalised coalition.
European governments' lack of preparedness to fight against anything like Daesh has been all too clear for years now. However, the fact that it has grown in strength over time obscures the realities of its uniqueness. It is not the only terrorist organisation to have relied upon foreign fighters, and it will not be the last. Neither is it the only to be able to exploit and manipulate modern technology, xenophobia and deep social, economic and political inequalities to its own advantage. Its successful growth lies not only in its effectiveness at these, nor its destructive capabilities and moral depravity. Instead, it resides in Daesh's ability to flexibly react to the outrage and to the enemies it has roused and against it. Thus, to view the strength of Daesh is to study its path of development.
Daesh's initial successes emerged out of its ability to instil an extreme ideology and its effectiveness at exploiting a favourable domestic situation within a socially and politically divided Iraq. It was able to exploit a predicted power vacuum – and then similarly in Syria – ruthlessly. Its attacks and fighting mirrored more like the world had experienced previously than to what it has developed into today. Gradually, it formally occupied territory, and, more importantly, administered it. Its universalistic ideology, which called for the implementation of its own twisted brand of 'justice', logically resulted in the fervour to install some form of law. Globally, Daesh is now all too infamous for its punishments for dissention and rejection of its ideology. The deliverance of its maxims consequentially led to enforcement. Laws necessarily require, however, arbitration, and this itself must have hierarchy to deliberate on the impermissible. This, in turn, required more than just soldiers. Administrators, tax collectors, and the commencement of some kind of specialisation for its followers to allow its judicial functions to be performed. On top of this, its fighters required payment. And thus tax collection, trade, and administrators were needed. In short, Daesh started to develop, in the absence of a strong and prepared opposition, into a barebones, proto-state organisation. It had, after all, the luxury of being able to organise as it declared a line of victories.
The qualifications of state-making can be deliberated upon. Many would point out that its moral reprehensibility immediately disqualifies Daesh from being named even a rough form of one. However, regimes committing the same – if not worse – crimes have been recognised before, and still are, though it would be counter-productive to recognise it as an official state. Daesh still does not represent a modern nation-state. This is largely due to its total isolation from nations which are recognised, and indeed there are functional gaps. What is undeniable though, is that a key part of the group's successes in battle, as well as a large degree of its appeal to some, arises from its resemblance of some rough framework of a state apparatus.
This is not to say that this works in its favour any longer, however. States require administration and coordination, which is at best inflexible, and at worse a nightmare to manage in times of great pressures and crisis. Daesh is no exception to this rule, though it is not – and should not – be recognised as a fully-fledged nation-state. Reportedly, Daesh is not only losing a huge amount of ground, but is doing so quickly, especially in Syria. Russia may claim a large degree of responsibility for this. Its involvement in supporting the Assad government has turned the tide for the Syrian regime, and has won both strategically important and symbolic victories, recently at Palmyra. Whilst for the Syrian people this is unlikely to make much difference to their lives, and may be just as demoralising as any other extremist force gaining ground, it is clear that Daesh is losing in theatre. What this means for the future for ordinary Syrians is unclear, especially for Kurdish groups, some of which appear to be taking the initiative in placing a stake for their own autonomy already. Whatever happens though, will not go smoothly. Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons and otherwise cruel regime was the principle reason Daesh made gains in Syria in the first place. Many Syrians will see a return of the old government's control as, if anything, a betrayal by the international community for not upholding what was originally a pro-democratic movement, and refusing to commit to the removal of the Assad government.
Regardless of the future for the Syrian people – and the tensions which are likely to emerge were the Assad government permitted to return the status quo – it is clear that Daesh is, despite the Brussels, Paris, and other attacks, losing ground. These attacks certainly represent a new evolution in its strategy. This is far from, though, a representation of some position of strength. In fact, there is a silver lining in these attacks. Daesh, it seems, has become desperate. This should be recognised, but, more importantly, prepared for.
Cory Turner: Student, cadet and sitting member of the Green Party Defence Policy Working Group.