IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

The Battle for Marawi: Three Months On

Written by Joseph Franco.

The Battle for Marawi has dragged on for three months, with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) providing vague estimates of when the situation would be resolved. Attempts to encourage normalcy have begun, with the resumption of classes at Mindanao State University (MSU), on the fringes of the main battle area. Beyond the optics of bringing the people back to the city lie the greater challenge of reconstruction and rebuilding Marawi.

Early in the siege, it was estimated that 90 percent of Marawi residents fled. Had there been a sizable portion of the population left in the city, the Philippine military would be even less able to use close air support and artillery fire; possibly leading to more casualties.

More than 700 members of the security forces and extremists from the Maute Group (MG) and its allies have been killed since fighting broke out on 23 May 2017. Fighting is concentrated in the city’s Bato Ali mosque, with several dozen MG fighters holed up with their hostages. Efforts by the group to reinforce itself have been thwarted, but it is unclear how many fighters or sympathisers were able to slip through. More troubling are reports of diversionary attacks launched by MG sympathisers on the fringes of Marawi, perhaps an attempt to ease military pressure on their comrades.

It is unclear how the MG will emerge after the fighting ends in Marawi. The unprecedented nature of the siege, in terms of its duration and the level of destruction, makes it hard to predict how much fighting capability the MG and its allies can preserve. In the aftermath of the 2013 Zamboanga Siege, the Misuari Group (a faction of disgruntled former Muslim secessionists) ceased to exist as a fighting force. The Mautes and their allies utilised weapons and equipment previously unseen on a large scale in Mindanao, such as very large IEDs and commercial off-the-shelf drones.

It is too simplistic to assume that the spike in MG capability can be attributed solely to purported guidance from the so-called Islamic State’s (IS) core. With Mosul retaken and Raqqa on the brink of falling to the coalition, it would be difficult to provide operational control to IS sympathisers fighting in Mindanao. Marawi provides the conditions for the perfect living laboratory for urban warfare operations. Contrary to what is reported, the infrastructure for sustained fighting had existed in Marawi even before the Maute Group existed.

Central Mindanao has been the scene of various incidents of clan conflicts or rido. To hedge against threats from other clans and other illicit armed groups, it is a common practice for families to cache weapons and fortify their homes. Rural Mindanao homes are often seen with simple earthen work fortifications or dugouts. In Marawi, these family shelters take the form of concrete reinforced basements, colloquially referred to as tunnels. Combined with the prevalence of multi-storey buildings, the complex urban terrain of Marawi has been a proverbial nightmare for Philippine security forces.

Fortunately, it would appear that contrary to Mosul and Raqqa, the Mautes have limited popular support with only civilian hostages comprising the bulk of their human shields. Early in the siege, it was estimated that 90 percent of Marawi residents fled. Had there been a sizable portion of the population left in the city, the Philippine military would be even less able to use close air support and artillery fire; possibly leading to more casualties. The destruction of Marawi may appear to be a validation of the ability of the Maute Group and IS to acquire territory in spite of losses in Iraq and Syria. Fighters especially from Southeast Asia could see Marawi as the perfect site for martyrdom.

But that would be an incomplete picture. The idea behind the IS expansion model of establishing a wilayat (province) is focused on “fighting locally” and “instituting limited governance”. Destroying a city, much so the only Islamic city in the Philippines, does not adhere to the governance aspect of a prospective wilayah. It must be stressed that the early appeal of the IS core was not only due to the ability of extremists to succeed in the battlefield. Making hijrah or migration to the Syria/Iraq region attractive rested significantly on selling an idealised and prosperous life under the purported caliphate. The rubble strewn streets of Marawi would hardly fit such a glamorising narrative.

The challenge for the Duterte Administration is to ensure the sustainability of rehabilitation activities while keeping remnants of the MG under pressure. The extension of martial law over Mindanao until the end of the year does not signal a government that is on top of the situation. Cutting martial law short would reinforce notions that Marawi is back to normal. It would also preserve what remains of Duterte’s political capital, in the face of mounting scandals regarding state-sponsored human rights violations. And it is political capital that Duterte sorely needs if he intends not just to rebuild Marawi, but build it back better. At stake is a shattered city that could provide endless propaganda value for jihadists.

Joseph Franco is Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a constituent unit of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Image Credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons.