2017, the year the ‘caliphate’ collapsed
Baghdad - 2017 will be remembered as the year the Islamic State’s ultra-violent statehood experiment was terminated but Iraq and Syria are left staring at ruined cities and daunting challenges.
The Islamic State (ISIS) lost its two main hubs — Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria — this year and is clinging to the dregs of a “caliphate” that, three years ago, spanned territory the size of Britain.
The proto-state shrank all year as air strikes conducted by Iraq with its US-led allies and Syria with its main Russian backer paved the way for an inexorable territorial reconquest. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has announced that, for the first time in four years, ISIS controlled no significant territory in Iraq.
In Syria, work remains to be done but ISIS holds only scattered and isolated pockets.
In Iraq, the West threw its weight behind Abadi, who defied the odds to keep his seat and gain internal credibility as he steered the country through three years of anti-ISIS war.
The costly military fight was also a chance to rebuild an army whose collapse in Mosul played a large part in the lightning expansion of the ISIS caliphate in 2014.
The US-led coalition has trained 125,000 members of the security forces since then and the country’s elite counterterrorism units that spearheaded the fight against ISIS are arguably the world’s most battle-hardened regular force.
“[ISIS] is finished from a military point of view but not as a terrorist organisation… We must remain in a permanent state of alert,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, spokesman for the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) paramilitary organisation that had a major role in the war.
The status of the PMF, which is dominated by Shia militia groups whose loyalty is more to Tehran than Baghdad, will be one of the greatest challenges ahead for Iraq.
The country will also have to inject life into Sunni cities that have been extensively destroyed, including the second city Mosul, Baiji, Ramadi, Sinjar and Falluja.
Failure to do so quickly, observers say, would give the remnants of ISIS — or its next incarnation — a chance to emerge from the desert canyons where they are hiding and thrive on the back of renewed sectarian discord.
Syrian cities such as Aleppo, Raqqa, Homs and others also need extensive reconstruction.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is much less palatable to the international community than Abadi, who enjoys good relations with the West as well as with Iran and other neighbours.
During 2017, a peacetime feel returned to parts of Damascus and areas elsewhere in the country where fighting ended two or three years ago. While ISIS’s military defeat in Syria is in no doubt, the war is not over and large-scale military operations against anti-regime forces are under way.
Several “de-escalation zones” across the country yielded mixed results and successive rounds of international negotiations to end a conflict in which approximately 350,000 people have died in less than seven years have yet to bear fruit.
Kurds pushing for more autonomy and supported by the United States control a large area of the country, a stand-off with Damascus that risks sparking renewed fighting.
Indeed, Assad has referred to the Kurdish fighters who battled ISIS as “traitors.”
“A big problem might be if a new security vacuum emerges, for example, if the regime and the (Kurdish-dominated) Syrian Democratic Forces go to war against each other,” said Syria analyst Aymenn al- Tamimi.
Since the end of the 9-month operation to retake Mosul — the largest urban battle since World War II — and the assault to wrest back Raqqa that ended in October, the scale of the fighting has tailed off.
2018 could be the year Syria’s deadly conflict is declared over but the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Syria festers, prompting record appeals for aid.
Approximately 3 million Iraqis are displaced and half of Syria’s 22 million inhabitants have been forced from their homes by the conflict.
A growing number of Syrians are returning home but “while some areas have become safer this year, fighting has erupted in other places causing huge waves of displacement,” said Ingy Sedky, ICRC spokeswoman for Syria, adding that 1 million people were displaced this year.
In Iraq, 11 million people require humanitarian assistance and colossal reconstruction needs are not the only challenges.
“Thousands are in detention following these rounds of conflict,” said Patrick Hamilton, ICRC deputy regional director of the Near and Middle East. “How they are treated and how justice is carried out will have a critical impact on creating a sustainable peace or gestating the next round of violence.”