Mosul loss huge, but not deadly, blow to ‘caliphate’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

BAGH­DAD:

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 Raqa, 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 sig­nif­i­cant ur­ban ter­rain,” no­tably in Syria.

Years of in­sta­bil­ity

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 Kur­dish-con­trolled 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.—AFP

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