Hard fighting and more terror ahead in Iraq
LONDON - The cover of the most recent issue of Dabiq, the glossy if laborious online journal of the Islamic State group (ISIS), features the aftermath of its November attacks on Paris, lauded as part of a campaign of “just terror” to force “the crusaders to end their hostilities towards Islam”.
The prominence Dabiq gave to celebrating the slaughter of 130 people in the French capital might be regarded as a perverse attempt to accentuate the positive. For, on the ground in their self-declared caliphate, the tide was turning against the jihadists in the closing months of 2015.
That was capped at the end of December by the ousting of ISIS from Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, in an offensive led by Iraqi security forces. It marked the latest setback for the movement in a year in which it was driven from 14% of its self-declared territory, according to the London-based security consultancy IHS Conflict Monitor.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi, announcing a victory that reflected his strategy of rebuilding the army, declared: “2016 will be the year of the big and final victory, when Daesh’s presence in Iraq will be terminated.”
“Daesh” is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
It would have been more prudent of Abadi to predict, like the British wartime leader Winston Churchill, that one victory did not amount to the beginning of the end of the war but it was perhaps the end of the beginning.
As former US ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad wrote as the initial reports of the liberation of Ramadi came through: “If history is any indication, even the most promising news from Iraq must be celebrated with caution.”
Nevertheless, Ramadi might mark a turning point in the war against ISIS, according to Khalilzad, writing in the National Interest: “After the Iraqi Army’s collapse in Mosul, Iraqi security forces — particularly its special forces — have largely recovered in terms of their reorganisation, professionalism and willingness to fight.”
The army’s ignominious flight from Mosul 18 months earlier created a perception that ISIS was invincible on the battlefield, with some commentators suggesting conventional forces could never be a match for its suicidal storm troopers.
Kurdish fighters on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border dented that myth within months of the ISIS onslaught, as the peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) clawed back Iraqi territory lost in 2014 and Syrian Kurds seized control of the strategically important Tishreen Dam in December.
In the battle for Ramadi, Baghdad assembled an alliance of government troops and Sunni tribal loyalists to spearhead the operation rather than relying on the leadership of Shia militias, which have been at the forefront of the fight against ISIS elsewhere.
The next test will be to see whether these same government forces, backed by US-led coalition air power, can launch a successful campaign to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. “We are coming to liberate Mosul and it will be the fatal and final blow to Daesh,” Abadi declared as Ramadi was liberated.
Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, said the liberation of Mosul would not be possible without the participation of the peshmerga and might also need Shia militia support. Mosul would be “very, very challenging”, Zebari said. “It will not be an easy operation, for some time they [ISIS] have been strengthening themselves but it’s doable.”
The recovery of Mosul would go a long way towards breaking the spell of ISIS, a movement whose unique selling point for potential recruits is its ability to seize and hold territory in support of its claims to have recreated the Islamic caliphate.
Its losses over the past year might be one factor behind ISIS’s decision to plot and encourage terrorist attacks abroad, such as the November 13th Paris attacks and the October 31st downing of a Russian airliner over Egypt in response to Moscow’s decision to enter the war in Syria.
Both operations were praised in Dabiq, which quoted the self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as warning that attacks beyond the region “will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism”.
In a later purported message at the end of the year, Baghdadi insisted, despite the evidence, that his caliphate was doing well and threatened members of the growing coalition ranged against it. “We promise you, God permitting, that whoever participates in the war against the Islamic State will pay the price dearly,” he warned.
In the light of the Paris attacks and a series of security alerts across Europe at the New Year that could be seen as a threat that ISIS will attempt to step up terrorist plots abroad in 2016 even as its hold on territory continues to evaporate.