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Jul 24, 2017 | 11:44 GMT

9 mins read

The Fight in Marawi City and the Struggles to Come

Philippine troops head to Marawi City to fight Islamist militants. Government success against a long history of insurgencies on the southern island of Mindanao comes piecemeal, and reversals always seem to follow.
(TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

The recent grinding, street-to-street fighting in Marawi City against Islamic State-affiliated militants has focused the world's attention on the restive and remote Philippine region of Mindanao. In time, the clashes will subside. But, as with the Iraqi city of Mosul, this monthslong episode is only one part of a longer struggle — one with roots centuries deep and with dim prospects for a lasting resolution. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a political outsider with a strongman image to maintain, is preparing measures intended to bring stability to the region — and forward his own goals in the process.

A Shifting Mix of Militants

Insurgency has a long history in Mindanao. The island group is far removed from the capital of Manila and has strong geographic and historical ties to contiguous regions of Indonesia and Malaysia. And whereas the Philippines as a whole is more than 90 percent Christian, about 20 percent of the residents of Mindanao are Muslim, with many concentrated in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao, as well as in the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. The ethnic Moro Muslims of Mindanao have resisted the state on and off since the colonial period, with modern insurgencies tracing their roots back to the 1960s. Duterte, who was mayor of Davao City in southeast Mindanao for 22 years, understands the delicate balance among militant groups in the region.

This balance has made implementing an enduring peace challenging to say the least. The militants who took control of Marawi City on May 23 call themselves the Maute group and represent just one tiny corner of a sprawling militant landscape defined by overlapping factions, deep divisions and strong disagreements over how to relate to the central government in Manila. Lucrative criminal smuggling and kidnapping activities in the poorly policed waters nearby only make this landscape more complex.

For centuries, an ever-shifting set of rebel groups has battled central authority on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

The strongest Moro militant group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), struck a peace deal with the government in 2014 after 17 years of negotiations, securing promises of concessions that separatist groups worldwide would envy: A region to be called Bangsamoro in southwest Mindanao presided over by MILF, replete with a lawmaking body, judicial system and police force, as well as a share of taxes and mineral wealth. This area would expand upon and replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao established in an earlier peace deal with another group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which has fragmented into numerous factions and become largely isolated and irrelevant. But the Philippine Congress has yet to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which would cement the government's promises and set a timetable for their delivery. Tensions in Mindanao and hurdles erected by the Philippine Supreme Court stalled the bill's progress in late 2016 under Duterte's predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III. MILF's leaders are eager for Congress to pass the law, since the longer it is delayed, the more the group's legitimacy and control erodes and the greater the risk of continued fragmentation.

The Bangsamoro Basic Law – the core of a 2014 peace deal between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – would have created a MILF-led administrative region known as Bangsamoro. The proposal is stalled in the Philippine Congress.

With MILF's deal under mounting pressure and ideological splits forming on whether to make peace with the government at all, the mainstream group's aging leadership has found it hard to contain younger, more radical members. The Maute group is composed of disaffected MILF fighters who formed their own organization under the leadership of Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute in 2012. Other militant groups, such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and Abu Sayyaf, have also challenged MILF's moderate stance.

In 2015, the Maute group declared its allegiance to the Islamic State. And the Islamic State's rise has only complicated Mindanao's situation by providing a fresh rallying point. Foreign fighters — a number of whom appear to be participating in the Marawi City fight, according to the Philippine military — have buoyed the Maute group. The Islamic State in Syria also managed to make numerous small transfers of money to the Maute fighters in Marawi via Malaysian intermediary Dr. Mahmud bin Ahmad. The slow-motion collapse of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will only exacerbate these problems: The movement is evolving into one that thrives in vacuums of authority and crises of legitimacy — both of which describe Mindanao. If Manila cannot manage to get a handle on the region, it will continue to be a haven for radical groups.

A Plan Laden With Political Challenges

Duterte has signaled he will push forward with measures aimed at brokering a lasting balance in Mindanao. On July 18, the president received a new draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law and said he would move to fast-track the legislation through Congress. Though details of the new draft law are scant, MILF's leaders have said that they hope for the transition period to begin in 2019 and culminate in local Bangsamoro elections in 2022.

Passing and implementing the Bangsamoro Basic Law will be difficult, even for a maverick such as Duterte. The president ran on a campaign that emphasized reforming the Philippine Constitution to transition the country from its current unitary political system to a federal model. Duterte says such a change would help to spread wealth across the country and alleviate massive regional development disparities. It also would help to break up political networks in the capital, a boon to political outsiders like Duterte and to large city centers outside the core island of Luzon (such as his home city of Davao). The president has laid out an ambitious plan to bring about this politically fraught change: In December 2016, he issued an executive order creating a constitutional review committee, which he says he will appoint after he has received the Bangsamoro Basic Law draft and made progress in peace deals with communist National Democratic Front of the Philippines insurgents. Though Duterte has identified the law as a template for federalism elsewhere in the country, such a passage will still be a major challenge politically and could face court challenges under the constitution.

Differing levels of development in the Philippines give the nation's numerous subregions varying imperatives.

Though the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law would shore up Duterte's federalist ambitions, it is not likely to truly solve the militant threat in Mindanao. There are simply too many subgroups with too little centralized control and too much incentive to defy moderate Moro leaders. A lasting solution would require a complex balance of political and military measures — and would still be vulnerable. The June inauguration of trilateral maritime patrols by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in the waters near Mindanao would be one part of a broader solution. The Marawi City siege, in fact, helped to expedite the patrols, with defense chiefs specifically highlighting a need to block the movement of Islamic State-aligned militants fleeing fighting in the city. Singapore, an observer of the patrols, also recently extended an offer to train Philippine forces in urban combat and to provide drone surveillance assistance — a sign of broader support by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for stability in the southern Philippines.

The MILF (and MNLF) in Marawi have been supportive of the Philippine armed forces; in fact, they have pushed for a larger role in keeping with their support for counterterrorism measures in the past. Leaders from both groups declared their commitment to the peace process shortly after the late May takeover of Marawi City. Throughout the siege, MILF has organized brief cease-fires with the Maute group through intermediaries and maintained a humanitarian corridor for civilians to exit the city. The mainstream group is keen to emphasize its support for the government and signal that it can be trusted with a semi-autonomous region. A potential spoiler, however, would be the emergence of evidence that MILF leaders had foreknowledge of the Maute group's plans in Marawi City — a subject of constantly bubbling rumors and a possibility given the overlap among the region's militant groups.

Looking to China, Needing the United States

The big question going forward is what role China will play in Mindanao and Marawi City. Duterte has made his high-profile effort to rebalance toward China a trademark of his administration, tilting away from the Philippines' longtime ally, the United States. But the fight for Marawi City laid bare the continued value of the U.S. alliance structure. Early in his term, Duterte had called for long-present U.S. special operations forces to leave Mindanao before the military pushed back and he allowed fresh rotations. With the outbreak of fighting in Marawi, U.S. personnel quickly stepped in as advisers in the fight — a fact Duterte was initially tight-lipped about. Since that time, U.S. partner Australia has provided surveillance assistance and Singapore has offered the same.

But Duterte has emphasized a wish for China to play a future role in Mindanao. China is already leveraging its substantial economic heft in the region, with studies underway to expand the port in Davao City as part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. But in the immediate fight for Marawi City, China's assistance has been limited. On June 29, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua promised to explore areas of counterterrorism cooperation through training, military exercises and intelligence sharing. He also oversaw the handover of light arms — the first of a two-part, $11.7 million package. With Duterte already talking about a bombastic million-dollar reconstruction package for Marawi City, China will have ample opportunity to leverage its wealth if it chooses.

But the fighting in Marawi City — much less Mindanao — is not yet over. The initial 60-day period of martial law that Duterte declared in late May expired on July 22 and Duterte managed so secure an extension from congress through the end of 2017, citing information about broader militant activities. Though an extension will give Duterte the latitude he wants to clamp down on hard-line militants, it is also a contentious move, given the Philippines' history of martial law under the Marcos dictatorship. It also carries risks on the ground — a failed arrest of militant leader Isnilon Hapilon initiated the militant takeover of Marawi City in May. This has been a pattern, with military activity stirring the hornet's nest of both mainstream militant units and hard-liners, sparking fighting. And so, the struggle to steady Mindanao will continue as it has before — piecemeal and with setbacks.

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