Since 2014 when it suddenly and dramatically captured a territory the size of Great Britain, the fight against ISIS has been grueling. But that fight to eliminate ISIS’ territorial control in Iraq and Syria now appears to be reaching its conclusion. The last neighborhoods of Mosul under ISIS control are on the verge of falling to the Iraqi security forces, though a street-by-street battle through the warren-like old city remains:
On Friday, the coalition spokesman confirmed that the area under ISIS control in Mosul is less than two square kilometers.
In Syria, the fight to retake Raqqa seems to be going well. Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, gave an interview with Akhbar Al Aan from Kurdish-held Rojava today saying:
The assessment is that this is pretty much on plan, it’s going according to the plan that we had laid out. This is going to take a long time. It’s a tough battle. We have to remember that Raqqa is the capital of this phony caliphate that ISIS declared, and so it will take a long time. [The battle to retake] Mosul, from start to finish, really started when the Iraqi forces captured Qayyarah airbase about a year ago. So that has been a year long campaign. I don’t think Raqqa will take that long, but it will take time and we’re not going to put a timeline on it.
McGurk may not want to put a timeline on it, but with the city entirely surrounded, it would be easy to imagine ISIS losing control of its two most important cities within a matter of months.
Syrian Democratic Forces fully captured Hattin district in #Raqqa City
— Syrian Civil War Map (@CivilWarMap) June 28, 2017
Later in the same interview, McGurk did not mince words as to how that fight will proceed in the short term: “The mission is to make sure that any foreign fighter who is here, who joined ISIS from a foreign country and came into Syria—they will die here in Syria. That’s the mission. If they’re in Raqqa, they’re going to die in Raqqa.”
The rapidly approaching question then is what happens after ISIS is defeated. With Raqqa and Mosul out of the way, Deir ez-Zour will be the last city under their control. As we’ve written before, the U.S.-backed SDF, the Syrian regime and its partners, and potentially U.S.-backed rebels all seem poised to engage in a high stakes race to fill the vacuum left as ISIS retreats in Eastern Syria. Turkey has amassed troops along the border, with intentions unclear, but have mooted the idea of another intervention. Secretary of Defense Mattis has left open the possibility that we’ll continue supplying heavy arms to the Kurds even after Raqqa falls. On the Iranian corridor, the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum, and the extent of our commitment to the SDF, the U.S. faces a series of potential crises in the immediate aftermath of ISIS’ defeat.
And that’s without considering the slow-burning regional issues that brought us here in the first place. The Iraqi army has performed admirably in the fight for Mosul, winning back the respect that it lost when it abandoned Mosul in the first place, but Iraq remains a deeply dysfunctional state that will simultaneously be moving closer to Iran while continuing to need U.S. assistance. Though Bashar al-Assad has secured a victory over virtually all of “useful Syria,” the Syrian civil war nonetheless continues. Nor will the end of ISIS mean the end of the threat posed by radical Islamism. The caliphate may die, but the ideology of jihadist terrorism that regards virtually the entire world as infidels deserving of death will live on.