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The Slow Death of the Syria Cease-Fire Brings a Hybrid War With Russia Closer

World Post

Alastair Crooke


BEIRUT — Gradually, the mist of ambiguity and confusion hanging over Syria is lifting a little. The landscape is sharpening into focus. With this improved visibility, we can view a little more clearly the course of action being prepared by Iran, Russia and the Syrian government.

Russia is emerging from an internal debate over whether the U.S. is truly interested in an entente or only in bloodying Russia’s nose. And what do we see? Skepticism. Russia is skeptical that NATO’s new missile shield in Poland and Romania, plus military exercises right up near its border, are purely defensive actions.

Iran, meanwhile, is studying the entrails of the nuclear agreement. As one well-informed commentator put it to me, Iran is “coldly lethal” at the gloating in the U.S. at having “put one over” Iran. Because, while Iran has duly taken actions that preclude it from weaponizing its nuclear program, it will not now gain the financial normalization that it had expected under the agreement.

It’s not a question of slow implementation — I’ve heard directly from banks in Europe that they’ve been visited by U.S. Treasury officials and warned in clear terms that any substantive trade cooperation with Iran is closed off. Iran is not being integrated into the financial system. U.S. sanctions remain in place, the Europeans have been told, and the U.S. will implement fines against those who contravene these sanctions. Financial institutions are fearful, particularly given the size of the fines that have been imposed — almost $9 billion for the French bank BNP a year ago.

In principle, sanctions have been lifted. But in practice, even though its sales of crude are reaching pre-sanctions levels, Iran has found that, financially, it remains substantially hobbled. America apparently achieved a double success: It circumscribed Iran’s nuclear program, and the U.S. Treasury has hollowed out the nuclear agreement’s financial quid pro quo, thus limiting Iran’s potential financial empowerment, which America’s Gulf allies so feared.

Some Iranian leaders feel cheated; some are livid. Others simply opine that the U.S. should never have been trusted in the first place.

And Damascus? It never believed that the recent cease-fire would be a genuine cessation of hostilities, and many ordinary Syrians now concur with their government, seeing it as just another American ruse. They are urging their government to get on with it — to liberate Aleppo. “Just do it” is the message for the Syrian government that I’ve heard on the streets. A sense of the West being deceitful is exacerbated by reports of American, German, French and possibly Belgian special forces establishing themselves in northern Syria.

All this infringement of Syrian sovereignty does not really seem temporary but rather the opposite: there are shades of Afghanistan, with all the “temporary” NATO bases. In any case, it is no exaggeration to say that skepticism about Western motives is in the air — especially after Ashton Carter, the U.S. defense secretary, raised the possibility of NATO entering the fray.

As Pat Lang, a former U.S. defense intelligence officer, wrote last week:

The Russians evidently thought they could make an honest deal with [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry [and President] Obama. Well, they were wrong. The U.S. supported jihadis associated with [Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria wing] … merely ‘pocketed’ the truce as an opportunity to re-fit, re-supply and re-position forces. The U.S. must have been complicit in this ruse. Perhaps the Russians have learned from this experience.

Lang goes on to note that during the “truce,” “the Turks, presumably with the agreement of the U.S., brought 6,000 men north out of [Syria via the] Turkish border … They trucked them around, and brought them through Hatay Province in Turkey to be sent back into Aleppo Province and to the city of Aleppo itself.” Reports in Russian media indicate that Nusra jihadists, who have continued to shell Syrian government forces during the “truce,” are being commanded directly by Turkish military advisers. And meanwhile, the U.S. supplied the opposition with about 3,000 tons of weapons during the cease-fire, according to I.H.S. Jane’s, a security research firm.

In brief, the cease-fire has failed. It was not observed. The U.S. made no real effortto separate the moderates from Nusra around Aleppo (as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has affirmed). Instead, the U.S. reportedly sought Nusra’s exemption from any Russian or Syrian attack. It reminds one of that old joke: “Oh Lord, preserve me from sin — but not just yet!” Or in other words, “preserve us from these dreadful jihadist terrorists, but not just yet, for Nusra is too useful a tool to lose.”

The cease-fire did not hasten any political solution, and Russia’s allies — Iran and Hezbollah — have already paid and will continue to pay a heavy price in terms of casualties for halting their momentum toward Aleppo. The opposition now has renewed vigor — and weapons.

It is hard to see the cease-fire holding value for Moscow much longer. The original Russian intention was to try to compel American cooperation, firstly in the war against jihadism and, more generally, to compel the U.S. and Europe to acknowledge that their own security interests intersect directly with those of Moscow and that this intersection plainly calls for partnership rather than confrontation.

The present situation in Syria neither facilitates this bigger objective nor the secondary one of defeating radical jihadism. Rather, it has led to calls in Russia for a less conciliatory approach to the U.S. and for the Kremlin to acknowledge that far from preparing for partnership, NATO is gearing up for a hybrid war against Russia.

It is also hard to see the cease-fire holding any continuing value for Tehran either. While the Iran nuclear agreement seemed to hold out the promise of bringing Iran back into the global financial system, such expectations seem now to be withering on the vine. As a result, Iran is likely to feel released from self-imposed limitations of their engagement in Syria and in other parts of the Middle East. Damascus, meanwhile, only very reluctantly agreed to leave its citizens in Aleppo in some semi-frozen limbo. Iran and Hezbollah were equally dubious.

All this suggests renewed military escalation this summer. Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably not wish to act before the European summit at the end of June. And neither would he wish Russia to figure largely as an issue in the U.S. presidential election. Yet he cannot ignore the pressures from those within Russia who insist that America is planning a hybrid war for which Russia is unprepared.

The Russia commentator Eric Zuesse encapsulated some of these concerns, writing that “actions speak louder than words.” Earlier this month, he notes, the U.S. refused to discuss with Russia its missile defense program:

Russia’s concern is that, if the ‘Ballistic Missile Defense’ or ‘Anti Ballistic Missile’ system, that the U.S. is now just starting to install on and near Russia’s borders, works, then the U.S. will be able to launch a surprise nuclear attack against Russia, and this system, which has been in development for decades and is technically called the ‘Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System,’ will annihilate the missiles that Russia launches in retaliation, which will then leave the Russian population with no retaliation at all.

Zuesse goes on to argue that the U.S. seems to be pursuing a new nuclear strategy, one that was put forward in 2006 in a Foreign Affairsarticle headlined “The Rise of Nuclear Primacy,” and scrapping the earlier policy of “mutually assured destruction.” The new strategy, Zuesse writes, argues “for a much bolder U.S. strategic policy against Russia, based upon what it argued was America’s technological superiority against Russia’s weaponry — and a possibly limited time-window in which to take advantage of it — before Russia catches up and the opportunity to do so is gone.”

So, what is going on here? Does the U.S. administration not see that pulling Russia into a debilitating Syrian quagmire by playing clever with a cease-fire that allows the insurgency to get the wind back in its sails is almost certain to lead to Russia and Iran increasing their military engagement? There is talk both in Russia and Iran of the need for a military surge to try to break the back of the conflict. Does the U.S. see that ultimately such a strategy might further entangle it — just as much as Russia and Iran — in the conflict? Does it understand Saudi Arabia’s intent to double down in Syria and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political interest in continuing the Syrian crisis? Does it judge these very real dangers accurately?

No, I think not: the political calculus is different. More likely, the explanation relates to the presidential election campaign in the U.S. The Democratic Party, in brief, is striving to steal the Republican Party’s clothes. The latter holds the mantle of being credited as the safer pair of hands of the two, as far as America’s security is concerned. This has been a longstanding potential weakness for the Democrats, only too readily exploited by its electoral opponents. Now, perhaps the opportunity is there to steal this mantle from the Republicans.

All this hawkishness — the American shrug of the shoulders at making Iran feel cheated over the nuclear agreement; at Russia, Iran and Damascus seething that the Syria cease-fire was no more than a clever trap to halt their military momentum; at the psychological impact of NATO exercising on Russia’s borders; at the possible consequences to Obama’s refusal to discuss the ballistic defense system — all this is more likely about showing Democrat toughness and savvy in contrast to Donald Trump.

In short, the Democrats see the opportunity to cast themselves as tough and reliable and to transform foreign policy into an asset rather than their Achilles’ heel.

But if all this bullheadedness is nothing more than the Democratic Party espying an apparent weakness in the Trump campaign, is this foreign policy posturing meaningful? The answer is that it is not meaningless; it carries grave risks. Ostensibly this posture may appear clever in a domestic campaigning context, where Russia is widely viewed in a negative light. But externally, if the Syrian cease-fire comes to be viewed as nothing more than a cynical ploy by the U.S. to drag Russia deeper into the Syrian quagmire in order to cut Putin down to size, then what will likely follow is escalation. Hot months ahead in Syria. Russia will gradually reenter the conflict, and Iran and Iraq will likely increase their involvement as well.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire after airstrikes in Idlib, Syria on June 12. (Abdurrahman Sayid/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

There are those in the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf who would welcome such a heightened crisis, hoping that it would become so compellingly serious that no incoming U.S. president, of either hue, could avoid the call to do something upon taking office. In this way, the U.S. could find itself dragged into the maw of another unwinnable Middle Eastern war.

We should try to understand the wider dangers better, too. Baiting Russia, under the problematic rubric of countering Russian “aggression,” is very much in fashion now. But in Russia, there is an influential and substantial faction that has come to believe that the West is planning a devastating hybrid military and economic war against it. If this is not so, why is the West so intent on pushing Russia tight up into a corner? Simply to teach it deference? Psychologists warn us against such strategies, and Russia finally is reconfiguring its army (and more hesitantly, its economy) precisely to fight for its corner.

As another noted Russia commentator, John Helmer, noted on his blog on May 30, the new NATO missile installations in Eastern Europe “are hostile acts, just short of casus belli — a cause of war.” According to Reuters, Putin warned that Romania might soon “be in the cross hairs” — the new NATO missile installations there will force Russia “to carry out certain measures to ensure our security.”

“It will be the same case with Poland,” Putin added.

Did you hear that sound? That was the ratchet of war, which has just clicked up a slot or two.

When the Caliphate Crumbles: The Future of Islamic State affiliates

War on the Rocks

Clint Watts

Panic over which future Islamic State affiliate should be of chief concern rises each day as the Islamic State loses turf in Iraq and Syria and foreign fighters flee. This panic should be muted, though, as all Islamic State affiliates are not created equal. A scary jihad map from al Qaeda last decade looks remarkably similar to a scary Islamic State map today. The names change but the places largely remain the same. Much like al Qaeda affiliates eight years ago after jihadi battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan cooled, only a few Islamic State affiliates will grow while many others wane. Anticipating which Islamic State affiliates will rise and fall in the coming years requires a deeper examination of the current construct of each affiliate, the bonds that bring affiliates closer to the Islamic State, the convergent and divergent interests between headquarters and the affiliates, and a long-term outlook for each region. Examining these factors across 16 current or potential affiliate regions paints a dire picture for the Islamic State as an enduring cohesive global terrorist organization. Its strongest current affiliates in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula face stiff competition from local rivals and rising counterterrorism pressure. For the Islamic State to endure beyond Iraq and Syria, its options are few and depend more on its ability to self-finance than any other factor.

All Affiliates Are Not Created Equal

Islamic State affiliates; referred to by the group as wilayats (provinces), like their al Qaeda parallels come in different shapes and sizes. Will McCants, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and author of ISIS Apocalypse, characterizes Islamic State affiliates in three ways:

  • Statelet — a governate that holds territory and operates like a state
  • Insurgency — a governate that occupies territory, but cannot always hold it, and is unwilling or unable to perform the functions of a state
  • Terrorist Organization — a governate that holds no territory and can only operate clandestinely

As an example, the Islamic State’s three wilayats in Libya represent statelets, its Boko Haram affiliate in Nigeria represents an insurgency, and its wilayats in Saudi Arabia only qualify as terrorist organizations. This affiliate landscape is dynamic; the status of all affiliates remains in flux. The Islamic State’s strongest affiliate in Libya sustained losses just this week. To illustrate the different types of affiliates currently composing the Islamic State brand, I’ve assessed each affiliate and its current status in a chart below (Figure 1). In some cases, regions host terrorist groups pledged to the Islamic State that have not been designated formally as wilayats. I describe these areas that produce high numbers of foreign fighters or suffer large amounts of Islamic State-inspired violence as “Horizon Wilayats” that may emerge over time as official provinces.

ISIS affiliates Figure 1

The Bonds That Bind 

Three years ago, counterterrorism debates ignited over a rumored conference call in which Ayman al-Zawahiri presided over a global gathering of al Qaeda affiliates. News of this communications session initially sparked the familiar chirp of pundits: al Qaeda is growing stronger, it’s winning, it’s on the march. But this terrorist communication was confused for commitment and allegiance at a time when al Qaeda’s network instead began to crumble. Bonds were not strengthening, but breaking. Affiliate pledges and communications provide only weak indicators of terrorist collaboration. The stronger bonds that bind terrorists together and suggest true coordination between a headquarters are physical, not merely virtual.

Similarly, today’s Islamic State social media propagation across a wide range of affiliates has been interpreted as a strong sign of its growing network. Electronic communication and sharing suggest coordination, but represents only one of the softer, weaker bonds surfacing in the open source. Pledging bay’at (allegiance) to the Islamic State proves the most obvious indicator, but the speed and nature in which Islamic State Central confirms bay’at tells more about the relationship. Following allegiance, collaborative social media work naturally occurs, but the specifics can be telling. Some affiliates broadcast in lockstep with headquarters, while others, either lacking routine communication with headquarters or sufficient technical production capability, broadcast only sporadically.

True allegiance, whether to al Qaeda or the Islamic State, occurs when terrorists physically collaborate on battlefields. Those affiliates closer to the head shed in Syria and Iraq naturally build tighter relationships with leadership. As seen with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the first affiliates to rebrand as al Qaeda last decade, failed digital communication and collaboration with al Qaeda Central (AQC) in Pakistan during the group’s surge in 2012likely contributing to the group’s decline. Affiliates in West Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Southeast Asia have always struggled to get equal attention as compared to those more proximate to the bosses. Beyond social media posts, affiliates best emulating the headquarters will duplicate their administrative governance documents. Islamic State wilayats in Libya and Yemen have duplicated governance policies closely mirroring law in Syria and Iraq. Physical relationships always prove the most telling. Countries with large volumes of foreign fighters surfacing in Syria and Iraq will have more and stronger connections with the Islamic State over the long term. Affiliates enjoying tighter relationships with headquarters will also receive investments in money and men to help sustain or grow their emirate and generate high profile attacks.

Above all, the movement of headquarters’ leaders from Syria and Iraq to an affiliate signals strategic calculation effectively done only through an in-person meeting. Drone strikes outside of Pakstan, Iraq and Syria or surprising Delta Force raids provide some of the only open source clues of affiliate connections to those outside of government intelligence circles. During al Qaeda’s move to affiliates, key operatives were unsuccessfully dispatched to capitalize on the Arab Spring and secreted into the Khorasan Group among Jabhat al-Nusra. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) dispatched envoys to al Shabaab, providing some of the first overt signs of the Somali group’s official connection to al Qaeda. The recent U.S. airstrike killing an Iraqi stationed in Libya, Abu Nabil, suggests the Islamic State now follows a similar pattern.

The Converging and Diverging Interests Of Terrorist Affiliates

Beyond the strength of bonds that bring militants together, a deeper examination of the converging and diverging interests between the Islamic State and its blossoming affiliates will signal which battlefields show promise beyond Syria and Iraq. Those affiliates expanding the brand and providing the group future options will be favored over those former al Qaeda affiliates reaching for the Islamic State’s fame.

The Islamic State accrues straightforward benefits accepting affiliates. After declaring a caliphate, receiving bay’at pledges from global affiliates became a signature way for the Islamic State to demonstrate its rise over its former overlords in al Qaeda. The Islamic State orchestrated the first pledges for maximum propaganda value by pulling in support from former al Qaeda strongholds such as Algeria and Afghanistan. Affiliates have also become a vehicle for achieving success with minimal effort. The Sinai wilayat downed a Russian airliner, providing the Islamic State brand effortless success and increased media content and distribution benefiting both parties. Depending on the environment, a good wilayat can provide potential financial support over the longer term, an expanded set of recruits to join the ranks in Syria, and may even serve as a future safe haven for the Islamic State should its current caliphate evaporate. Both Yemen and Syria served this purpose for al Qaeda over the last decade as its leaders expired in Pakistan. The Islamic State also benefits if affiliates can provide access to specialized skills, equipment, and even targets (such as Westerners). Most importantly, a good affiliate will energize global supporters. Al Qaeda’s affiliates over the last decade demonstrated that Arab affiliates closer to the ideological heartland inspire global supporters in ways African and Asian affiliates sprinkled around the periphery cannot.

From the affiliate’s perspective, pledging to the Islamic State brings a mixture of self-interests, some of which may be more of detriment than benefit to the headquarters. Those first affiliates pledging to the Islamic State largely consisted of breakaway al Qaeda middle managers frustrated by local lack of progress who sought promotion. Frustrated, relatively unknown background players formed wilayats in Afghanistan and Algeria to directly challenge longtime al Qaeda strongholds. Hardliners and violent young bucks broke from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to form a Yemeni wilayat. These new affiliates benefited by connecting to the Islamic State, whose unprecedented media machine amplified its new local group. Should they fail, these new Islamic State upstarts could retreat to a safe haven in Syria and Iraq.

Breakaway faction interests in Algeria, Afghanistan, and Yemen do not hurt headquarters like those long-lasting terror groups who glom onto Islamic State fame while offering little to the global brand. As seen with al Shabaab, which clung to a merger with al Qaeda after its fortunes waned in 2012, some affiliates jump to the Islamic State to reinvigorate their dying efforts. Ansar Bayt al Maqdisi, now the Islamic State’s Sinai wilayat, likely serves as a similar example. Naturally, resource-strapped affiliates may seek out the Islamic State for money and resources, draining the headquarters’ coffers. Today, many selfish Islamic State affiliates, particularly those in Nigeria and Southeast Asia, have clamored for the Islamic State to allow them to keep local manpower at home and possibly incentivize global fighters to relocate as the war in Syria and Iraq declines.

Factors Driving Future Islamic State Growth

The Islamic State’s headquarters, should it crack under coalition pressure over the next year, will face a similar dilemma as al Qaeda did during the Pakistani drone siege of 2009 to 2011: Where should they move to survive and thrive?Regardless of the bonds and ainterests that help describe the relationship between the Islamic State and its affiliates, three factors will largely influence where the Islamic State seeks a new homeland. First, the Islamic State proved able to break away from al Qaeda largely because it was self-financed. Moving forward, those affiliates able to generate their own revenue will have a significant advantage in the post-caliphate era. Second, as seen by post-Bin Laden al Qaeda’s failed emirates in Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel, affiliates facing less counterterrorism pressure in the near term will have a greater chance of surviving over the longer term. Third, affiliates in many countries face a range of jihadi competitors. Wilayats with less competition will likely prove more fruitful for the Islamic State as they can conserve resources by avoiding battle with their former al Qaeda brothers.

The chart below evaluates 27 factors noted in the above discussion weighted and compared across 16 affiliate regions. Factors were informed by open source indicators I populated, foreign fighter data discussed in “Beyond Syria and Iraq, The Islamic State’s HR Files Illuminate Dangerous Trends,” and a comparison of expert judgments. I relied on the godfather of Islamic State administration, Aymen al-Tamimi, to understand where governance practices were being shared, used the work of Charlie WinterJ.M. Berger, and Aaron Zelin to assess social media collaboration, and leaned on Will McCants for comparing affiliate constructs. The horizontal axis assesses perceived bonds between affiliates and the headquarters. The vertical axis depicts the degree to which an affiliate’s interests converge with that of the Islamic State. Arrows show the affiliate’s future outlook, either positive or negative depending on potential revenue, counterterrorism pressure, and jihadi competition.

Three clusters of affiliates naturally arose after evaluation of more than two dozen factors. Those affiliates with the tightest bonds and convergent interests with Islamic State headquarters (upper right quadrant of Figure 1 “al Qaeda Rivals”) represent locations with long histories of jihadi violence and were some of the first to pledge to the Islamic State and challenge al Qaeda. The outlook for “al Qaeda Rivals” seems dim as they struggle against a combination of challenges: local jihadi competitors, international counterterrorism efforts, intense state opposition, and financial challenges. The Islamic State’s most promising affiliate in Libya suffered a serious setback this week losing their prized port of Sirte.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, several “Bandwagon” affiliates offer a better outlook since they face fewer local rivals, weaker counterterrorism pressure, better ability to self-finance. Yet Indonesia, the Philippines, Somalia, and Nigeria have the weakest bonds with the Islamic State. Comparatively few foreign fighters from these locales have traveled to Syria. Disloyal al Qaeda affiliate Boko Haram and the Somali splinter emerging for the Islamic State often pursue wanton violence that ultimately proves detrimental to the greater brand. Invigorated Indonesian and Filipino terror groups, now Islamic State devotees, show little difference from their al Qaeda-supporting forms of a decade ago. All of these affiliates pledge to either the Islamic State or al Qaeda to bolster their own image and keep their troops at home. Finally, these “Bandwagon” affiliates have never drawn significant global support and would likely be the least preferred travel destinations of most surviving Islamic State foreign fighters, who for the most part will differ ethnically from these peripheral groups.

In between the “al Qaeda Rivals” and “Bandwagon” affiliates are “Morphing” existing and future affiliates. Those “Morphing” include two affiliates from historical jihadi conflict zones on the decline. Russians from the Caucasus joined the Islamic State in Syria largely because their efforts were crushed at home. AQIM splinters joining the Islamic State immediately after declaration of the caliphate have largely been routed by the Algerian government and outpaced by their previous AQIM overlords.

Emerging areas may provide possible alternatives with greater viability compared to traditional affiliates. Islamic State-inspired violence has sprung up in Bangladesh; though the outlook there appears positive for jihadis, the country lacks tight linkages with Syria and Iraq. Central Asia provided a significant uptick in foreign fighters to Syria, and jihadi-inspired violence hit Kazakhstan this week. Meanwhile, Lebanon not only produces a high rate of foreign fighters to Syria, but also offers an easy transit point from Syria.

Al Qaeda affiliates may have a marginally better outlook than the Islamic State

The Islamic State’s options for reconstituting in an affiliate appear bleak, should it need to scale back in Syria and Iraq. All of its fountains of support across North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia face stiff local competition or mounting counterterrorism pressure. More importantly, the Islamic State’s vaunted caliphate-funding model may quickly become the group’s lynchpin if it moves from state to affiliate and from conventional army to insurgency and terrorism. With no turf to govern, there will be no spoils to take, necessitating a shift to donations and black market operations. The Islamic State has employed off-putting violence, alienating many potential donors. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, always measured its violence in part to prevent the loss of its core financial donors. Al Qaeda’s approach endures to this day, as seen by Qatari kingpins powering the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra. Over time, Islamic State affiliates will struggle under competition because no affiliate, at present, seems to govern on sufficient scale to replenish this funding stream, and their type of violence will be unlikely to attract committed donors. Islamic State affiliates will be dependent on black market spoils that often turn local populaces against terrorists in ways more legitimate taxes and donations do not.

What to look for as the caliphate crumbles?

Financial outflows from Syria and Iraq, the dispatching of Iraqi Islamic State envoys, and the emigration of foreign fighters (already underway) will provide the most illustrative signals of the post-Islamic State terrorism landscape. The most indicative data will come from the roughly 15% of Islamic State foreign fighter survivors I estimate will be unable or unwilling to return home. These “floating” fighters lacking roots to a homeland affiliate will be inclined to choose the most promising global affiliates for safe havens. As noted last week, Europeans will be the most important tell and will be inclined to mix with those of similar ethnicity and language. For example, French and Belgian foreign fighters may be better suited for North Africa or Lebanon.

Central Asian, Russian, and Chinese fighters will be another important contingent to watch should they choose to resettle with an Asian group known for attracting foreign fighters, such as the Khorasan wilayat or possibly more likely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In the coming months, some Islamic State affiliates will decline and be absorbed by other affiliates in a natural process of consolidation and reconstitution. As an example, recent news suggests Sinai wilayat members may already be relocating to Libya. Ideological leaders represent the bishops of the Islamic State chessboard, and their movement from the caliphate will confirm the game is up. Keep an eye on their travel. If they choose to leave Syria and Iraq, they will be the last to go and will only move to the safest of affiliates — those most amenable to continuing the Islamic State’s vision for governance.

Having controlled territory to this point, the Islamic State has been able to stockpile cash, although coalition airstrikes have recently taken quite a toll on this reserve. In preparation for a move or to survive in general, the Islamic State will increasingly transfer funds to other locations. Analysts should watch for increased hawala transfers from the Levant to affiliates, increased money laundering through black market connections in Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, and even financial sheltering via social media applications and digital currencies leveraging the Islamic State’s global network of supporters.

Lastly, of all locations, Lebanon may be the most important to watch. A fragile state close to Syria, Lebanon is producing high rates of foreign fighters, faces floods of refugees, lacks a strong international counterterrorism presence, faces constant sectarian strife, and sits proximate to every jihadi’s common enemy, Israel. Lebanon, moreso than any other country, seems an ideal opportunity for the Islamic State should the caliphate end. Much like the American withdrawal from Iraq six years ago, the Islamic State’s demise, when it comes, won’t spell the end of jihad — just the close of a chapter and the start of a new one somewhere else.