Ian Robert Henderson, Foreign Policy Contributor/Outreach Co-Chair
Opinion: With the assault on Raqqa in full force by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the battle for Mosul in Iraq coming to a close with Iraqi forces having seized nearly the entire city, the Free Syrian Army assaulting Islamic State (ISIS) forces along the border with the Israeli controlled Golan Heights, and the Assad Government's military forces pushing eastward into ISIS territory at a rapid pace, the self declared caliphate's days seem numbered. This leaves the once powerful jihadist group with very little land left under their control other than the vast desert regions of Syria and Iraq. With the current pace of the conflict, The Islamic State, which has been causing death and destruction in the Middle East and beyond for the last four years on a macro scale, has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Many of its leaders have been killed in combat or assassinated and its ability to project power abroad has become limited as a result of its inability to hold onto territory that it once seized. ISIS likely will not make it through 2017. That being said, what does that mean for the future of Iraq and Syria and the power structure in the middle east region?
In the Iraqi city of Mosul, a bloody battle to take back the city from ISIS forces that has been raging since last October, is finally coming to a close. The Islamic State's self proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic State as a global caliphate in June 2014 in this city, sparking the beginning of the international fight to stop its expansion. The battle itself, which has been one of the longest and most violent in the war against ISIS has resulted in over 8,000 deaths and 600,000 displaced as of last month. As of now, ISIS fighters have been pushed back to a single neighborhood in the old city of Mosul. An unlikely combined force of Iraqi Military, Sunni Arab tribesmen, Iranian-financed Shia militias, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and the US-led coalition via air support have managed to besiege the militants in this neighborhood. According to the UN, over 100,000 civilians remain trapped in this last stronghold in Mosul, being used as human shields by the remaining fighters. For this reason, the push to take back the city has been slow as forces have tried to avoid civilian casualties. However, this has been largely unsuccessful as civilian casualties have been extremely high due to high amounts of collateral damage on behalf of the forces trying to oust ISIS from the city. The UN has said that over the last two weeks alone, 230 residents of the city have been killed as a result of the heavy fighting. As of June 18th, Iraqi military forces have begun their offensive to take this last stronghold of ISIS in the city. It may take weeks before the fighting ends, but we can be assured that there will be casualties and they are likely to be high.
After Mosul is taken, ISIS will have no more major strongholds in Iraq. Their areas of control in Iraq that straddle the Syrian border are mainly desert and have little strategic significance. The town of Hawija, which is in between Mosul and Baghdad, also remains under ISIS control, but is surrounded by Kurdish Peshmerga forces from the east and Iraqi military from the west, leaving no escape. Once ISIS is defeated in Iraq and the dust settles, what happens next?
Currently, Iraqi Kurdistan, a self governing autonomous region of the nation has gained more power than ever before as a result of the conflict against ISIS. The Kurdish regional government has amassed power to the point where the Iraqi central government has little to no influence over the autonomous region. Iraqi Kurdistan, via its powerful Peshmerga militia, has also expanded its territorial control beyond its regional borders within Iraq in an effort of create a buffer zone against ISIS. These gains will not be easily given up, as the Kurdish regional government has historical claims to much of the territory that they have seized. The Iraqi central government, headed by Hader al-Abadi and the Islamic Dawa Party, has as a result of this conflict further strengthened ties with Iran, solidifying its status as a proxy state of the Shia theocracy. That being said, however, isn't necessarily a pretext for a conflict between the largely Shia Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government. While Iraq's central government is backed and supported by Iran, it has taken a huge blow from the conflict with ISIS and is in a fairly weakened state in comparison to the Kurds. Following ISIS's defeat in Iraq, the central government will be more preoccupied with ensuring control over the Sunni Arab areas of the country than trying to pick a fight with the Kurdish proto-state. When all is said and done, Iraq for all intents and purposes will be two separate nations.
Looking back on the rise of ISIS, the decision by then-President Barack Obama to hastily pull US forces out of Iraq for domestic political appeal ultimately led to a power vacuum that was filled by a resurgent al-Qaeda in Iraq. This once beaten and diminished Salafist group rebounded as a result of the rapid pullout by US military forces who were unable to establish a proper gradual shift of power to a stable political structure in the country. President Barack Obama's neglect towards this situation allowed it to fester and grow until after ISIS forces seized Mosul in June 2014. Obama's lack of action leading up to this allowed ISIS to rise. Granted, our initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein by the Bush Administration, was a poor policy decision without any foresight. It led to consequences that arose as a result of an administration that cared little for the sectarian divides within Iraq's borders that the Hussein regime was able to contain. This however, does not excuse Barack Obama's decision to remove troops at a time when Iraq was still very unstable. It only compounded an already bad situation and made things far worse. Hopefully, we can look back at the decisions made by the last two administrations in Iraq with a little more knowledge and wisdom. As Iraqi forces surround the last 300 remaining ISIS fighters holed up in the old city of Mosul, we should ask ourselves two questions: what's next for Iraq and how do we avoid getting pulled back into another conflict in this nation?
In Part two of my 'Fate of the Islamic State' series, I will discuss a litany of subjects pertaining the conflict in Syria including: the current battle of Raqqa, the recent territorial gains by Assad's forces in ISIS territory, the rising of tensions between the Syrian Kurds and the Assad government, the overall future of Syria after ISIS's defeat, and what effects that will have on the region as well as the future of the international balance of power.
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