By Campaign Agent Kit Bowerin
Note: this article was written before the reported death of ISIL leader by Russian forces.
Since 2014, a Coalition of 70 countries led by the United States announced its intention to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL” (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) otherwise known as “Operation Inherent Resolve”. The Coalition has sought to defeat ISIL through a strategy which involves tackling its financing, targeting its economic infrastructure, cutting flows of foreign fighters, whilst at the same time countering ISIL’s propaganda and delivering military progress against ISIL safe havens on the ground and stabilise liberated areas.
With ISIL based mainly across Syria and Iraq, progress towards the Coalition’s end goal has been slow due to geopolitical differences between regional and international nations; the often contradictory policies of Coalition members and the brutal nature of ISIl’s warfare. Let’s take a look at the situations in Iraq and Syria, put simply.
The State of Play in Iraq
From the inception of the Coalition, there has been much criticism of the slow progress in attacking ISIL at the early start of the campaign in 2014- 2015. However, from 2015 the campaign saw significant progress with the Iraqi Government recapturing the cities of Ramadi, Hit, and Fallujah across the Anbar Province, a mainly Sunni province, freeing the Coalition and Iraqi forces to set its sight on the crucial battle to recapture ISIL’s Iraqi stronghold of Mosul which began in October 2016, meaning that to date ISIL has lost over 62% of the territory it once held.
The Coalition has always had a strategy to win the Iraq war against ISIL through providing political, economic and military support to the Iraqi Government and Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq. Presently, Iraqi forces are moving ever closer to victory in Mosul capturing over 90% of the city as they move into the old city with the support of Coalition special forces and airstrikes. This is significant, as Mosul is where ISIL’s Caliphate was announced by its leader Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi back in June 2014. His fate remains unknown.
At the same time, government and militia forces are conducting operations to move towards the Syrian Border. With ISIL’s Syria supply routes cut off, its foreign fighter flows collapsing by 90%, leadership degraded, finances weakening, and military capability fatally wounded, a military and territorial victory appears to be on the horizon for the Coalition, at least for the time being.
But as one problem decreases another increases, and the new challenge is emerging through the role of Shia militias, such as the Popular Mobilization forces and the power and influence they have across Iraq with the support of foreign backers such as Iran. An array of Human Rights reports state that militias are capturing territory, driving away and imprisoning Sunni citizens, conducting kidnappings and torture, whilst destroying Sunni communities in liberated areas under government control. Combined, these actions risk keeping much of the country in a lawlessness state, which directly undermines the Coalition’s attempts to stabilise the country and threatens to ignite yet another Sunni insurgency.
One fundamental question remains unanswered, who will have has power and authority in Iraq after ISIL, the government or the militias? In a recent Channel 4 documentary, Iraq’s defense minister conceded that the militias are even more powerful than the government, illustrating the fragile nature of the Iraqi state that the Coalition is supporting.
There is a growing consensus that failures of governance and state corruption represented the central prerequisites to the crisis that allowed ISIL to mobilise and capture significant territory across a failing state, sending shockwaves around the world. With Iraqi forces appearing to be winning the military war, now the government must win the peace by actively rooting out state corruption, addressing the ethnic divide between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, and above all else winning back the heart and minds of the Iraqi people, as it is the people who are the prize in creating a unified Iraq.
Despite success on the battlefield, their remains little evidence to suggest that the Coalition, the Trump administration or the Iraqi government have a credible strategy to rebuild and unify Iraq. In addition, the weak state of the government, the power of the militias, and a Kurdish Independence referendum upcoming, the chances of effective state building towards a unified country remain weak, meaning that the dark clouds of sectarianism could be reborn in the Iraq that emerges after ISIL.
The State of Play in Syria
While in Iraq the Coalition may have a military strategy to defeat ISIL, in Syria it is a very different story. Here, efforts to defeat ISIL have been consistently undermined by the conflicting geo-political interests of Coalition members and other global and regional powers. In an international context, all countries see ISIL as a threat, Coalition states and regional states such as Saudi Arabia believe in the removal of President Assad and seek to check Iran’s influence in the region, while Russia and Iran support the propping up of the Assad regime first and defeating ISIL second. Other Coalition states such as Turkey view ISIL as a threat but also seek to prevent any growth in Kurdish Nationalism despite the Kurds being the Coalitions strongest and most reliable ally on the ground.
Whilst the US has militarily supported the Kurds and rebel elements such as the Free Syrian Army, other Coalition states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey continue to fund and arm other Islamist and potentially extremist militant groups such as Ahrar Al-Sham and Al-Nusra. For example, Turkey’s military intervention into Syria in 2016, known as Operation Euphrates Shield, helped these forces secure Turkey’s boarder from both ISIL and Kurdish forces, and provided them with further resources to fight the Assad Government, just demonstrating the confusing and often conflicting strategies in play.
To date, the US-led Coalition have backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) in the north of the country made up of Kurdish and Arab fighters, who have pushed ISIL back from the Turkish border and initiated the final phase of its offensive to capture the self-proclaimed capital of ISIL, Raqqa. The capture of Raqqa will strike a mortal blow to ISIL but the SDF are only willing to go so far to defend Kurdish areas. Accordingly, for the Coalition to rely on the Kurds to defeat ISIL right across Syria does not add up to a coherent strategy.
Furthermore, whilst the fight against ISIL is making progress with the group losing 30% of its territory, the Coalition’s confidence in elements of the Syrian opposition dwindles, as its other objective to remove the Assad regime appears to be going backwards due to the support Assad continues to receive from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. This means that the chaotic environment on the ground remains, an environment, which ISIL thrived in once and may yet take advantage of again. Unless the Coalition and Assad’s international backers can come together to find a political solution in Syria, address the Assad obstacle, and focus on the collective threat of terrorism, ISIL will always have a role to play in Syria, and the Coalition mission cannot be fulfilled.
Whilst ISIL loses territory and legitimacy to claim to be an Islamic State its own structure and strategy is evolving. Strategically, ISIL has begun to change its focus towards the far enemy, as demonstrated by recent attacks on Coalition states such as the UK and France. To adapt to the situation on the ground, ISIL will continue to operate out of Syria to build its transnational networks and use it extremist motivation in the name of Islam to carry acts of apocalyptic violence against Coalition states.
ISIL once controlled territory the size of Jordan. Today, it has lost territorial significance across Iraq and Syria, with over 4.1 million people liberated from its rule, challenging its legitimacy and attributes of statehood. It is however more than a State or Caliphate it is also an ideology and this represents the real long-term challenge for the Coalition.
In addition, questions surrounding the future governance of both Iraq and Syria remain, as the international community’s political priorities and values continue to collide. Without effective governance, the Coalition remains unable to finish the job of defeating the ISIL narrative. Despite these questions, the Coalition has made a substantial impact in pushing ISIL on the path towards military defeat, but so has the bankruptcy of ISIl’s ideology and the brutality of its rule, which has in and off itself contributed to the implosion of its Caliphate.
The interrelated crisis in the Middle East, and the divided nature of the international community means the Coalition still has no viable strategy to solve the sectarian and geopolitical war taking place across Syria and Iraq. As long as this remains the case, regardless of the Caliphate, ISIL will maintain a viable presence in the region and retain its reach as a global terrorist network.
Sources and Further Reading
Patrick Colburn- The Rise of Islamic State, ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution
Image rights: Quentin Bruno @ Flickr