Analysts warn too early to declare final victory
BAGHDAD, July 9, (Agencies): Mosul was the largest city in the “caliphate” proclaimed by the Islamic State group and its loss is a huge blow to the jihadists’ statehood experiment — but not a fatal one. The northern Iraqi city was where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only known public appearance in July 2014, announcing himself to the world as “caliph” during a Friday sermon at a mosque in the Old City. It took tens of thousands of Iraqi forces backed by Western warplanes and special forces nearly nine months to defeat the jihadists, who leave behind them a heavily damaged city and exhausted security forces. With Mosul, a city that had a population of around two million three years ago, the “caliphate” loses one of the main hubs of its administration and IS one of the most potent symbols of its might.
“It is a major blow to IS’s prestige,” said David Witty, an analyst and retired US special forces colonel. The recapture of Mosul, hailed as a decisive step towards ending this unprecedented episode in the history of modern jihad, is the latest in a long string of setbacks for IS. At its peak, the jihadist group controlled a territory roughly the size of South Korea or Jordan and with a population of more than 10 million. It has now lost more than half of the land and three quarters of the population. And a major offensive on its other de facto capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa, is gathering momentum. The group — whose motto was “remain and expand” — has not conquered new areas around the core of its “caliphate” since 2015, has lost thousands of fighters and is less attractive to foreign jihadists than it once was. The fall of Mosul further reduces the so-called caliphate’s territorial contiguity, leaving more pockets of IS-held land completely isolated. Yet analysts warn it is too early to declare final victory. “We should not view the recapture of Mosul as the death knell for IS,” said Patrick Martin, Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, adding the group “still holds signifi- cant urban terrain,” notably in Syria.
Even in Iraq, where the jihadists lost more ground and only retain seven percent of the territory they once had, declaring the caliphate dead “implies that IS can no longer control terrain and govern,” he said. Yet “if security forces do not take steps to ensure that gains against IS are sustained for the long-term, then IS could theoretically resurge and recapture urban terrain,” Martin said. As it attempts to save the remnants of the caliphate, the group is likely to intensify a transformation it has already begun by focusing more of its resources on guerrilla attacks and bombings.“In the near-term in Iraq, IS will switch to terrorism and insurgency instead of trying to openly control major areas,” Witty said. Martin said there was already a pattern of major IS attacks following military setbacks. The deadliest ever bomb attack in Baghdad, in which more than 320 people were killed last year, came after the jihadists lost their emblematic bastion of Fallujah. The group also staged a major commando attack on the Kurdishcontrolled city of Kirkuk days after the launch of the assault on Mosul, which was Iraq’s biggest military operation in years.
With its dreams of statehood on hold, IS is expected to revert to those types of attack and do everything it can to deny the Iraqi government any claim it has been eliminated. “It is very easy to see this coming, and Iraq will likely be plagued by insecurity for years to come,” Witty said. The reach of IS ideology remains one of the greatest threats in the world after three years that saw foreign affiliates mushroom far beyond the core of the “caliphate” and thousands of foreign fighters join the battlefield, with some returning home.
After almost nine months of fierce fighting, the campaign to recapture Mosul from Islamic State is drawing to a bitter end in the ruins of the city’s historic quarter, but the struggle for Iraq’s future is far from over. Aside from Mosul, across the border in Syria a battle is raging to dislodge IS from Raqqa, the second capital of its self-declared caliphate. Fighting will push down the Euphrates valley to Deir al-Zour, the jihadis’ last big urban stronghold. But the fall of Mosul also exposes ethnic and sectarian fractures that have plagued Iraq for more than a decade. The victory risks triggering new violence between Arabs and Kurds over disputed territories or between Sunnis and Shi’ites over claims to power, egged on by outside powers that have shaped Iraq’s future since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority rule and brought the Iran-backed Shi’ite majority to power.
For Iraq, stunned by the blitz on Mosul by Islamic State in 2014 and the collapse of its army, victory could thus turn out to be as big a problem as defeat. The federal model devised under the Anglo-American occupation and built on a power-sharing agreement between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds collapsed into ethno-sectarian carnage spawned by the al-Qaeda precursors of Islamic State. In the three years since the jihadis swept across the border from Syria where they had regrouped in the chaos of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, IS was the rallying point uniting a fractured Iraq. But now that the group faces military defeat, the unity that held Iraq together is starting to come apart. One challenge is the future of Mosul itself, a city traumatised by Islamic State’s brutal rule and shattered by the latest US-backed offensive, with thousands dead and nearly one million people displaced. Western, Iraqi and Kurdish officials say they are astonished that Iraqi authorities neglected to prepare a post-battle plan for governance and security.
A high-level committee formed by the Kurdish region, the Baghdad government and a US-led military coalition to help Mosul leaders rebuild the city had never convened, they said. “Prime Minister (Haider) al-Abadi kept dragging his heels. Every time we raised this issue with him, he said, ‘Let’s wait until military operations are over’,” said Hoshyar Zebari, an internationally respected former finance and foreign minister. “A whole city is being decimated. Look how much the government is contributing, as if they don’t care.” The first indication of possible future confl ict came when Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, announced a Sept 25 referendum for an independent state. Another omen was a push by Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, grouped under the government-run Hashid Shaabi, to deploy alongside Kurdish areas and advance towards the Syrian border, motivated by Iran’s desire to join Iraq and Syria and establish a corridor from Tehran to Beirut. “Today the highway of resistance starts in Tehran and reaches Mosul, Damascus and Beirut,” Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, said last week.
All this comes against a backdrop of simmering rivalries between regional powers Iran and Turkey, and above all declining US infl uence and Iran’s vigorous attempts to consolidate its control in Iraq. While the administration of US President Donald Trump regards Syria and Iraq purely in terms of the military campaign to destroy IS, local jihadi fighters will simply melt back into the population, and could regroup in a new insurgency. Sunni and Kurdish leaders in and around Mosul largely agree with this grim prognosis, alarmed that Abadi has refused even to discuss the future governance of Mosul, and suspecting that Iran is calling the shots. The disputed territories stretch along an ethnically mixed ribbon of land dividing the autonomous Kurdish area in the north of Iraq from the Arab-majority part in the south — more a minefield than a mosaic — at a time when both the Kurds and Sunni Arabs are giving up on Shi’ite rule in Baghdad. Atheel al-Nujaifi, who was Nineveh governor when the provincial capital Mosul was captured in 2014, says: “We are back to where we were before Mosul fell, (because) there is an idea among the hardline Shi’ite leadership to keep the liberated areas as loose areas, with no (local) political leadership, or security organisations, so they can control them”.