Often, as the Iraq example demonstrates, the demise of an insurgency helps its most extreme elements. After the superficially successful surge, ISIS gained a monopoly over political violence in Sunni Iraq; it no longer had to compete for influence and recruitment with its erstwhile violent rivals.
There are signs that jihadis associated with both ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria are similarly well positioned. Granted, local alternatives to these extremist groups still exist, but they no longer present a coherent message of resistance.
For example, Adham Akrad, a moderate rebel commander from Deraa with the Free Syrian Army, appeared in a video recently urging the government to release individuals previously given guarantees of safety by Russia. Unlike jihadis who strongly reject any reconciliation with the regime, Akrad seemed to acknowledge that he was negotiating with a dominant power.
Other rebel groups that once dominated the militant landscape in Syria —Jaish al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham — have been weakened to the point of irrelevance. Some of these forces were also rivals to ISIS and al-Qaeda. Their disappearance is a net gain for the jihadis.
Despite wishful thinking, the conflict in Syria is not over yet. One third of Syria is still outside of the regime’s control, under Turkish influence in the northwest and American protection in the east. As in Iraq, moreover, the regime’s military gains could prove temporary.
There is a vast arc of vulnerable areas that Damascus probably cannot secure: a rough terrain of deserts and river valleys extending from the Israeli borders in the southeast to Iraq in the east and then to Turkey in the northwest.
Already the two main jihadi groups, al Qaeda and ISIS, are becoming the last men standing in these rural and remote areas. It will not be difficult for them to tap into a pool of human and material resources to fight against a vicious, deeply unpopular dictatorship controlled by an Iranian-backed minority sect. To win recruits, jihadis may not even need to win hearts and minds—they need only convince the disaffected that they represent the only viable opposition left against the government. Having inherited the Syrian uprising and its energy, they could become permanent fixtures of the Syrian scene.
What ISIS really wants
Again, unless grievances are resolved, insurgencies do not simply go away. They can lie dormant for years or even decades, only to re-emerge later. Indeed, the Syrian conflict over the past few years could be traced in part to the Islamist insurgency of the 1970s and 1980s waged against the current president’s father, Hafez. That rebellion was seemingly crushed after the government launched a deadly campaign in Hama, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 people. The government also embarked on a systematic and educational campaign to uproot Islamism from Syrian society. Yet many individuals who lived in exile after 1982, or their descendants, have gone on to fight Hafez’s son. And many groups integral to the current uprising, including Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Nour ad-Din Zinki, and Faylaq al-Sham, could be considered the direct ideological heirs of the old Islamist insurgency.