The fall of Raqqa this week completed the slow-motion demolition of the world’s only utopian movement worthy of the name. Like most utopian movements, the Islamic State was barbaric and iniquitous, precisely because it held its own refinement and egalitarianism in such high regard. Assume eventual absolution by history or God, and anything goes in the meantime.
The pleasure of dancing on the Islamic State’s grave should not be denied, even if it is true, as experts remind us, that its zombified hand might yet emerge from the earth to grab our ankles as we do so. Having lost Raqqa (and before it Hawija, Tal Afar, and Mosul), it now still holds border areas between Iraq and Syria, plus isolated territory in Libya, Sinai, Afghanistan, and the southern Philippines. What it no longer controls is territory from which it can make its most important claim—that it has built a paradise on earth, where God’s law is the only law, and Muslims can live lives that fully express their faith. It once boasted that women, children, and the elderly could live full and happy lives in Raqqa. Now an invitation to hijra—migration to Islamic State territory—is simply an invitation to die quickly on the field of battle.
What hasn’t received much attention, amid the celebration, is the manner in which that death has been dealt. In May, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the war against the Islamic State had shifted from a war of attrition (slip their heads into a noose, then squeeze) to a war of “annihilation” and “humiliation.” He has kept his word. Although many Islamic State fighters have surrendered—sometimes in humiliating fashion—almost all are Syrians and Iraqis who joined the group pragmatically, and not members of the 40,000-strong contingent of foreign fighters who migrated in the supposed path of God. We haven’t yet heard stories of mass surrender by foreign fighters. One American Islamic State fighter is in custody, out of well over a hundred known to have traveled to the battlefield. The desert plains of eastern Syria are strewn with the corpses of most of the others, I suspect, along with French, Tunisian, and Chechen colleagues.
It’s worth reflecting on how foreign a “war of annihilation” is to the modern American way of war. Every war includes targets who are assumed to require extermination, who will not or should not be taken alive. But a war in which most of the enemy is considered beyond any possible surrender or political solution, and must be killed to the last man, is an extraordinary thing, unexampled in American history since the Indian Wars. There will be no ceremony on the USS Missouri, in which an envoy of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi signs an instrument of surrender.
Instead the coalition seems to prefer that no one make it back alive. French Defense Minister Florence Parly admitted as much this weekend. “If jihadists die in the fighting, then I’d say it’s for the best,” she said. Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union counterterrorism czar, told The Wall Street Journal that he expects the roach-motel model of the Islamic State to be the right one: Most of those who go there won’t come back. “The vast majority would rather die fighting or seek to stay inside Syria.”
The Islamic State’s foreign fighters chose this end, so if the annihilation of human beings troubles you, take it up with them first and Mattis second. Irrespective of scruples, though, keep in mind the practical effects of this kind of war. If war is hell, this is its ninth circle, the circle of treachery. Watch this video of Islamic State fighters purporting to surrender to Kurdish fighters, then detonating suicide belts as they get close. (The Kurds aren’t hurt. The video is not graphic, but skip it if you don’t want to watch Islamic State fighters disappear in a puff of smoke.) It is little wonder, then, that the easy solution, it seems, has been to bomb Raqqa and kill the remaining resistance rather than wait for proof of its good intentions.
The cost of this type of fighting is the same cost exacted by the Islamic State in nearly every other city from which it has been dislodged: It leaves behind not a city but a pile of rubble. The citizens of that pile of rubble are left to wonder whether its total destruction was preferable to continued rule by the Islamic State, crucifixions and beheadings included. The Kurdish-led, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have taken Raqqa (and, in a show of idiocy or tone-deafness, placed a large photo of the Leninist Kurdish icon Abdullah Ocalan in its main roundabout). The Islamic State, to the extent that it survives, is falling back—betting that the SDF will fail to govern its prize in a way that will please its surviving residents. And the war of annihilation that allowed the SDF to take Raqqa will make it all but impossible to keep free and stable for long.