FREIBURG, GERMANY – The fall of Aleppo last month to the Russia-backed forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has spurred yet another wave of discussion about the prospects for ending the civil war. Despite the recent countrywide ceasefire, guaranteed by Turkey and Russia, between Assad’s forces and most rebel groups, most seem to agree that the conflict is far from over. After all, the Islamic State (ISIS) has not agreed to anything – and is not going to.
These observers are right about one thing: the war in Syria will not end until ISIS is defeated. But the belief, espoused by many, that the fall of Raqqa – ISIS’s self-declared capital – will achieve that goal is, to be frank, wrong.
To be sure, Raqqa is, in the words of the French historian Jean-Pierre Filiu, “the operational command center” for ISIS terror attacks, such as the murder of 12 people at a Christmas market in Berlin last month, or the killing of 39 at an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Day. But the conclusion of Filiu and others that Raqqa’s fall is the key to ending attacks on Europe conflates the Syrian civil war’s causes, symptoms, and solutions. In fact, while ISIS’s short-term prospects are certainly linked to Raqqa’s fate, its long-term survival and influence will likely be decided thousands of miles away.
In many ways, Saudi Arabia is the wellspring of ISIS. Saudis account for the second-largest number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, owing largely to an identity shaped by two key historical developments.