Are we witnessing the beginning of the end for ISIL?
The war against ISIL has entered a critical new phase. The group is facing a multipronged offensive threatening at least three of its most vital strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
The strategic significance of the areas under attack mean the group will have little choice but to put up a serious fight, which will then help the US-led coalition to better assess and target the current capabilities of its enemy. Similarly, the way the assault is conducted will determine whether the new phase is the beginning of the end for the group or the start of a new cycle.
The multi-front onslaught is fateful because the outcome can lead to one of two scenarios. On the one hand, the attacks in both countries are spearheaded by Shia militias beholden to Iran and Kurdish forces perceived to be close to the regime of Bashar Al Assad, which bodes ill for the long-term battle to defeat ISIL. On the other, the weakening of the group by such ISIL-focused forces could in fact compel Sunni forces to become more involved in the effort to root out what remains of the organisation. Which of these scenarios will play out depends on Washington’s next moves in the coming months.
In isolated and depleted Fallujah, the battle that began two weeks ago has so far stalled. Unlike when ISIL abruptly withdrew recently from some areas, the group appears to be using all it has to defend the first city to fall to it in 2014, deploying suicide bombers and front-line suicide fighters – known as inghimasi – while shelling nearby government-aligned forces non-stop.
In Raqqa, the first provisional capital to be captured by the group, a similar pushback slowed down the advancing forces in the villages outside the city. In Minbij, one of two remaining strongholds in Aleppo, the group withdrew from surrounding villages and fortified itself inside the city.
In all those cities, the choice of forces to lead the battles under American air support has invoked popular anger including among those most opposed to the group. If the battle in Fallujah in November 2004 rallied people in the region due to its resistance of the US occupation, the continuing Fallujah offensive has become without a doubt the highest source of sectarian polarisation since the campaign started in the summer of 2014.
Sectarian – even genocidal – slogans raised by Iranian-backed militias belie, at least in the eyes of the public, statements from Baghdad and Washington that the forces attacking Fallujah are inclusive and nationalist.
In a sign of the region’s ever-broadening complexities, Aws Al Khafaji, the leader of Abu Al-Fadl Al-Abbas brigades, an Iraqi terror organisation that fights as part of the pro-government Popular Mobilisation Forces and alongside the regime in Syria, said: “This is our opportunity to cleanse Iraq by eradicating the tumour that is Fallujah.”
From a military perspective, the need to close in on ISIL at this point may trump any consideration for potential political, sectarian or social ramifications. US officials told Reuters, in a report published on Saturday, that a 17-month training effort has failed to create effective combat units and check the dominance of sectarian militias. Worse, much of the training focused on conventional combat, which became less useful as ISIL shifted to pre-Mosul insurgency tactics.
But the reliance on sectarian militias in Fallujah is further complicating the plan to retake Mosul, not the other way around. The Mosul offensive stalled due to profound differences among Iraqis over who fights in the city or handles the humanitarian situation that will be emerge as a result. The way Baghdad handled Fallujah will make the effort to liberate Mosul much harder. The assault might heighten fears among civilians in Mosul and, as US officials told Reuters, burn out the special forces units, the only non-sectarian Iraqi force, which led the effort to liberate Ramadi.
As the fight against ISIL takes a new turn, Washington’s dependency on these militias will increase, which will perpetuate the underlying issues that sustain groups like ISIL. US officials recognise such dilemma but they insist that the military push against ISIL must continue and any political ramifications can be dealt with subsequently.
The problem is that the same logic is rejected when the situation involves the participation of Syrian rebel forces in a meaningful way, which can undermine ISIL’s narrative that this is a sectarian war.
Another problem is that the US will likely find itself sucked further into Iraq and Syria precisely because of the unintended consequences it is now overlooking.
Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
On Twitter: @hxhassan
Updated: June 5, 2016 04:00 AM