This reply stems not from some so-called « expert », not from some advocate of any specific side in this wide-ranging conflict, not from a journalist required to follow some editorial line. It simply comes from a European, independent and years-long observer of geopolitics, writing from a country which sustained, 4 years ago on this very day, a dramatic Islamic terror attack against its iconic and satiric Charlie Hebdo journal.
I fully agree with your conclusion that the departure of US troops from Syria may mean that, and I quote:
the gains made these past three years remain fragile and incomplete, and could easily unravel—and indeed, under this administration, I fear they will.
I fully disagree, however, with your diagnostic that, I quote again:
The Islamic State is not defeated until the idea of the caliphate has been defeated.
The idea of the caliphate dates back to the very origins of Islam, the Caliph being the person recognized as the successor to the original prophet Muhammad. The caliphate has been both the bane of Islam as various currents vie for the position of « true » caliphate, and its cement as the ultimate goal of religion: to reinstate upon the Earth the kingdom of the Caliph, prelude to the final battle against the Infidels (that is, us and every non-Muslim) that will usher in a new era of humanity under the rule of God itself. That is what all Muslims fundamentally believe, and thus this is going to stay for as long as there are Muslims. You cannot get rid of the idea of the caliphate.
Worse still, this idea of the caliphate exists in all monotheist religions, the difference being merely a matter of degree. In the US evangelists, of which there are a great many in the US establishment, believe and work for the return of God to the world. Jews have just recently reintroduced their own caliphate by stating that, and I quote from the BBC on July 19th, 2018:
« A hundred and twenty-two years after [the founder of modern Zionism Theodore] Herzl made his vision known, with this law we determined the founding principle of our existence, » Benjamin Netanyahu said.
« Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens. »
I think your misunderstanding of the reality of this world illustrates the general misunderstanding of the US of anything that exists beyond its borders, in the sense that the proverbial hammer sees all problems in the form of nails. It is impossible to eradicate the idea of the caliphate unless you eradicate the notion of religion itself, the only thing you could (and should) do is eradicate the conditions which enable this idea to grow beyond the bounds of romantic myth.
Unfortunately the US have a strong track record in doing just the opposite, that is pouring petrol on top of simmering fires by escalating conflicts, corrupting existing administrations, playing one community against another, imposing regime change through violence for the sole good of administration hawks with links to oil, weapons and drug interests.
The current witch-hunt of the Shia leadership in Iraq against Sunnis, where anyone from that community can be accused and killed by puppet courts, does not seem to move the US administration because it has no vested interest in doing anything about it. Had Saddam Hussein done this, or Gaddafi, or Bachar el-Assad (and they certainly all did / do it), arms go up and the drums of war start beating in the name of « Freedom and Liberty ».
But what has this ever achieved? Nothing. Afghanistan is about to go back to where it was in 2001. Iraq is applying ethnic cleaning to itself right now, a thing which was – together with the CIA-invented weapons of mass destruction – the original pretext for G.W. Bush’s war. Libya is a total hell-hole, now not only for its people but for the whole region, for other Africans going through it and being enslaved, blackmailed, sold, and killed.
Great job, even though on that occasion the main culprit was really former French President Sarkozy, who had an issue to clean up following the illegal financing of his 2006 campaign with Libyan money. And I won’t even mention Syria where Western support for insurgents opened the gates of Mordor to hordes of Islamic mercenaries, and your only – and temporary – success being able to defeat a few thousand ground troops.
Please do not take it personally, but you exemplify a typical misunderstanding of reality which generally leads to catastrophe. Whether that misunderstanding comes with good faith or not I don’t know, but it is way past time to remove the blinkers and look at the true causes of conflict in Syria and the Middle-East, to stop thinking that only in the US and Israel is the « idea of the caliphate » respectable, and to talk with all stakeholders – and that includes the Russians and the Iranians – about how to remove the need for concerned Muslims to view the return of the caliphate as the only way to better their – often miserable – lives.
A few hints are easy to find as they are written within the raison d’être of the caliphate: lowering inequality and misery through redistribution of wealth, fighting corruption, restoring dignity to people unable to find jobs, hence unable to marry, hence sidelined by civil society. Push for such things and ISIS will revert to what it really is, a gang of criminals with no claim whatsoever to the dignified status of a potential caliphate.
That will not mean that Muslim society will become likable by people like you and me, I hate the very idea of Saudi Arabia even though they are our »best friends », but that is not our concern. It is up to their citizens to decide how they want to live.