Even when Mosul falls, ISIS will stay a threat
LONDON - Time may be running out for the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul as Iraqi forces mass outside the country’s second largest city but the jihadist movement, which held large reaches of Iraq and Syria at its height in 2014, will continue to pose a threat in the Middle East and beyond whatever happens in the weeks ahead.
In the latest report on ISIS to the UN Security Council, the world body’s political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman noted that the group had suffered significant military setbacks in both Iraq and Syria in the last year or so.
Pressure on its ability to raise cash had made it harder for ISIS to pay its fighters and administer territory under its control.
Military operations in Afghanistan and Libya against ISIS-linked groups had also undermined the movement’s ability to hold territory, Feltman reported.
However, due to its far-flung affiliates, ISIS would continue to pose a threat as far away as Somalia, Bangladesh, South-east Asia and in Europe, where the jihadists are turning their attention to mounting terrorist attacks involving fighters returning from the main battlefront, Feltman said.
The UN official’s brief does not include assessing the consequences of military operations against ISIS, otherwise he might have suggested that even the liberation of Mosul could create almost as many problems as it resolves.
The post-ISIS reality in the city and other occupied parts of north-western Iraq will depend on the questionable ability of the Iraqi authorities to restore stability to the region after an uneasy coalition of government forces, Shia militias and Kurdish peshmerga combines to liberate it.
The present best estimate is that it could take weeks to drive ISIS out of Mosul.
Beyond that, there is the even more complex question of how to deal with ISIS in Syria, focused on its self-declared capital of Raqqa in the north-west, which is seen as more strategically important to the group than holding on to the Iraqi city.
Amid reports that ISIS was reinforcing positions around Raqqa, Canadian Brigadier-General David Anderson, a senior member of the international coalition supporting the campaign against ISIS, said in the Kurdish capital of Erbil that both Mosul and Raqqa mattered to ISIS, although “I think that probably Raqqa matters more”.
He said that ideally both cities would be pressured militarily at the same time “because I think if I was in Mosul and I needed somewhere to go, I’d go to Raqqa if I wanted to maintain the fight”.
Anderson is among those who have argued that targeting the two cities simultaneously would stop any ISIS attempt to reinforce either city from the other.
However, with the focus in Syria on Aleppo, and the heightened tensions between the United States and Russia that the bombardment of that city has provoked, the fate of Raqqa has been put to one side.
An alternative “Mosul first” strategy has been devised by which the US-led coalition is attempting to disrupt attempts by ISIS to reinforce either front with mobile fighting units. Coalition air strikes are aimed at harassing ISIS along the Syrian border with Iraq to undermine its ability to reinforce Mosul.
If and when Mosul is liberated, the focus of the battle against ISIS will inevitably switch to Syria. For the moment, US air strikes around Raqqa have eased off and even those by Russia and the Syrian regime were less intense in mid-October.
Syrian regime forces, backed by Russian warplanes, have moved towards Raqqa from the south and the Syrian Kurds and their local allies have targeted the city from the north, in their case with US air support. However, there appears to be no imminent campaign to drive the jihadists from the city.
The Kurdish role has inevitably provoked Turkey, adding to tensions within the divided coalition confronting ISIS in Syria.
In the continuing struggle against the jihadists, as outlined in the UN report, the recapture of Mosul may turn out to be the easy part in the war against ISIS.