Unexpected Benefits From a Battle Against ISIS

The main battle area in the southern city of Marawi on Oct. 25, after the Philippines’s military proclaimed the fighting over against militants backed by the Islamic State. Credit Ted Aljibe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The main battle area in the southern city of Marawi on Oct. 25, after the Philippines’s military proclaimed the fighting over against militants backed by the Islamic State. Credit Ted Aljibe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Oct. 23, the defense secretary of the Philippines, Delfin Lorenzana, announced the end of combat operations in the southern city of Marawi, after the armed forces spent 154 days fighting local and regional Islamist terrorists. At last, victory — of a sort.

Marawi, which declared itself an “Islamic city” in 1980, is the capital of Lanao del Sur province, on the island of Mindanao, and the religious center of the Maranao, a tight-knit indigenous Muslim community. Marawi and the Maranao have been at the forefront of a decades-long insurgency against the central government in Manila. In recent years, however, disgruntled factions have splintered off, some embracing gangsterism or Islamist terrorism.

Last December, President Rodrigo Duterte dared one of those offshoots, the Maute group, to come to Marawi. On May 23, it did, with reinforcements.

That a coalition of local terrorists backed by the Islamic State could then hold off the Philippine

military for five months was a propaganda victory for the terrorists. The prolonged battle also became a threat to democratic freedoms after Mr. Duterte, with congressional support, promptly imposed martial law (and suspended the writ of habeas corpus) across Mindanao, home to more than one-fifth of the country’s total population and the vast majority of its Muslim minority.

Martial law is still in force, and the physical damage caused by the fighting has been colossal. The siege has destroyed vast sections of Marawi, the largest city in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, a specially designated area that was granted some measure of autonomy from Manila three decades ago. The head of Palafox Associates, a leading Philippine architecture and urban-planning firm, says it could take up to seven decades to rehabilitate the city. The Philippine government estimates that more than 350,000 people have been displaced by fighting in and around Marawi.

And yet the crisis has also created unexpected opportunities, notably for cooperation on counterterrorism, both in the Philippines and regionally, and for finally resolving long-festering insurgencies in Muslim areas of the country.

A damaged mosque in Marawi, on Oct. 25. Credit Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
A damaged mosque in Marawi, on Oct. 25. Credit Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

The battle for Marawi prompted unprecedented, if limited, cooperation between the Philippine armed forces and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country’s largest insurgent group, which for years has fought for independence or self-governance for Muslim Mindanao, routinely clashing with government forces. In January 2016, long before the Maute group seized Marawi, the MILF announced that it had created a task force to fend off local recruitment efforts by the Islamic State. In September, it waged combat operations against Islamic State-affiliated terrorist groups in central Mindanao, with assistance from the army, its old enemy.

In August, all 41 mayors in the province of Lanao del Sur signed a manifesto declaring the Maute group “enemies of the Maranao people”, blaming it for the siege of Marawi. Local Muslim clerics issued a fatwa condemning local terrorists. The government, longtime insurgents and local authorities have found common ground in pushing back against Islamist terrorism, and that should now yield broader political gains.

The task of reconstructing Marawi, for example, presents a major opportunity to help dispel local distrust of the central government, or “imperial Manila”. Local Maranao should be given the leading voice in what to rebuild and how — say, the main mosque, which sustained considerable damage. Instead of housing the displaced in temporary shelters, as the government has done elsewhere after natural disasters, it could, as has been proposed, offer financial assistance for residents so they can immediately rebuild their homes.

Now would also be a good time to revive the peace process for Mindanao, already some two-decades old. It has stalled in recent years — causing, some MILF leaders have warned, younger Muslims to turn to terrorism.

In March 2014, the MILF and the Philippine government, then led by President Benigno Aquino III, signed a comprehensive agreement granting Muslim Mindanao much more regional and fiscal autonomy. But the legislation needed to make the deal effective has been languishing in Congress, held back by some legislators’ enduring distrust of the MILF and others’ concerns that the proposed bill would require amending the Constitution.

To kick-start the law, the Duterte government could capitalize on the good will that seems to have emerged recently among the various parties who rallied against the Islamist terrorists in Marawi. Mr. Duterte, who is from Mindanao, has supermajorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the leaders of both houses are from Mindanao as well.

This is an opportune moment also because the military’s image has been burnished, boosting trust in the government generally, including among its usual skeptics.

The reputation of the armed forces took a hit as the siege of Marawi dragged on and they repeatedly failed to meet the government’s deadlines for ending the face-off. But it got a lift, paradoxically, from Mr. Duterte’s much-dreaded declaration of martial law.

That announcement sparked fears that the Philippines might slide back toward authoritarianism, as happened during martial rule under Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and ’80s. Mr. Duterte didn’t help matters by professing his admiration for Mr. Marcos, calling him the “brightest” president the Philippines has ever known. Yet under the command of the defense secretary, Mr. Lorenzana, also formally the “administrator of martial law”, the Philippine armed forces seem to have exercised those special powers with great restraint.

In fact, during his recent visit to the Philippines, the U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said, “I think the most important thing is, here’s an army that had to go in a fight like that, and they had not one human rights allegation against them with any credibility — not one”.

Military cooperation with the United States, the Philippines’s most important security partner, certainly has benefited, after being shaken by a series of intemperate, sometimes profane, statements by Mr. Duterte deriding the alliance. U.S. forces provided intelligence and surveillance during the fight to liberate Marawi, and the Philippine military chief said that assistance “tilted the balance” against the Islamist fighters.

The crisis in Marawi has also given a welcome boost to the Philippines’s relations with some of its Muslim neighbors, with their shared concern about Islamist terrorism bridging over their differences about other issues. After fighters from Malaysia and Indonesia joined the Islamic State-backed coalition that seized Marawi, those two countries joined the Philippines for the first time to conduct trilateral maritime and air patrols in the Sulu Sea — despite a dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia over Sabah, a Malaysian state that borders that sea.

The siege of Marawi, in other words, could restart the stalled peace process in Mindanao and bolster some of the Philippines’s delicate foreign relations. The city’s destruction may have given new urgency to the fight against Islamist terrorism in the Philippines, but it has also revealed the ways of tackling that task.

Malcolm Cook is a senior fellow at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, in Singapore.

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