What’s next against ISIL?
Nearly nine months after the start of the offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to retake Mosul after three years, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory and government control of his country’s second largest city on July 9. But the city is devastated, thousands of mostly civilians have been killed, and nearly a million people are currently displaced as a result of intense ground fighting and airstrikes.
The Mosul offensive was an outcome of months of preparation and planning among several groups including Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, Sunni and Shia tribes, as well as the U.S.-led international coalition. Although the successful coordination eventually brought the liberation of Mosul, ISIL still holds on parts of Iraqi territory and most probably maintains its vast network of sleeper cells around the country.
During the Mosul offensive, the U.S.-led coalition has played significant role. Since its establishment in September 2014, it has conducted thousands of airstrikes and trained 70,000-strong local forces to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIL. Coalition airstrikes have increased considerably, both in Iraq and Syria, since Donald Trump’s assumption as U.S. president. According to Col. Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the coalition, there are still about 15,000 ISIL militants, 5,000 of whom are in Iraq and about 10,000 in Syria, decreased from 20,000 to 30,000 in September 2014.
Nevertheless, the victory in Mosul is a critical milestone in the fight against ISIL. It was the city where ISIL proclaimed its caliphate-state on June 29, 2014. Even before the Iraqi troops recaptured the city, ISIL militants, to prevent a symbolic victory for the Iraqi army, had blown up the Grand al-Nuri mosque, where ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivered his first speech as caliph.
Despite this major setback in Mosul, ISIL still has several strongholds in northern Iraq, including Hawija and Tal Afar. The dates to advance toward those cities have not yet been determined, as the Iraqi army is still busy with cleaning up booby traps inside the city and trying to find a way to deal with threat posed by ISIL militants, who are blended in with civilian Iraqis fleeing the city. Thus, the defeat of ISIL in Mosul does not mean an end but a beginning of a new struggle.
Apart from the fight in Iraq, U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces have recently intensified their operation to retake Raqqa in Syria, the de-facto capital of ISIL, with the deliverance of heavy weapons from the U.S. These efforts would ultimately help to drive out militants from their Syrian strongholds as well.
However, what will be more important both in Iraq and Syria in the meantime is focusing on the factors that provide suitable ground for radical groups, such as ISIL, to emerge and sustain enough support to stay afloat, as there is no doubt that ISIL will continue to exist for a long time in the region under one name or another, perhaps waiting for another opportunity to reclaim its prominence.
We should not forget that it was the U.S. occupation of Iraq, then the power vacuum left behind by its withdrawal, as well as U.S. policy of removing Sunnis from government offices and later the sectarian policies of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who alienated Sunni tribes and created a suitable environment for radical groups to strengthen in Iraq. The Mosul offensive clearly showed that benefits of cooperation between Sunni and Shia Iraqis. It needs to continue, as more inclusive policies of the current Iraqi Prime Minister, al-Abadi, would undoubtedly bring further progress in the fight against ISIL and rebuild his country. But he also needs all the help he can get from national, regional and international actors for that.