What’s next after Mosul and Raqqa?
Units of the Iraqi Army’s special forces, trained and supported by the United States, celebrated their victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
In the war against ISIS, Iraq has the political backing of several European and Arab countries, including most of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.
Shortly after their defeat in Mosul, ISIS jihadists will almost certainly be removed from the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the short-lived caliphate. Here, a much-weakened ISIS will likely face its last stand, this time against the the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their allies.
While the war to defeat ISIS in Iraq is quite clear — at least as clear as the fog of war permits in the complex and often murky world of Middle Eastern politics — the fact is that ISIS is fighting one coalition in Iraq and another in Syria. This does not automatically make the two anti-ISIS coalitions allies or even friends.
The civil war in Syria complicates matters even further.
The war against ISIS in Syria, supported by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, does not bring these factions any closer. Despite Russia and the United States both fighting to eradicate ISIS, this does not make the two superpowers any friendlier to one another, either. Instead, it risks putting their political differences on the front lines of the Syrian conflict, as recently took place when the United States shot down a Syrian war plane.
The alliances created out of military necessity have brought together the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the GCC countries and a scattering of European and Arab countries.
ISIS’s imminent defeat on the battlefield does not mean the end of the Islamist threat, however.
Indeed, routing ISIS on the battlefield creates new problems that must be addressed immediately. Ignoring those issues would create further chaos in the region and beyond.
What comes next is not going to be easy or simple to resolve.
Authorities will have to expedite rebuilding population centres destroyed in the fighting. Winter is only a few months away and the number of refugees is staggering. They will want to ensure there are adequate living conditions to house refugees before cold weather sets in.
Tonnes of rubble will need to be cleared and financial investors will need to be invited to rebuild the cities and gradually fix the ugly scars of war. The military will need to start removing the thousands of landmines and unexploded ordnance.
An urgent refugee crisis requires immediate attention, as many of the millions of people displaced by the fighting will head back to the area.
The refugee crisis has not only affected the countries involved in the conflict but spilled into neighbouring countries in the Levant and into Europe.
Syria, with the civil war continuing, faces a greater problem, as ISIS was only one of the factions fighting the regime.
Additionally, military sources have estimated that approximately 60,000 ISIS fighters were thrown into the fight in Mosul, not all of whom were killed or captured in Iraq.
As the jihadists were being pushed out of their last stronghold in Iraq, many made their way to Raqqa. Respite for the jihadists, if any, will likely be brief before the same scenario that took place in Iraq unfolds in Syria. Thousands, if not more, of experienced, combat-hardened and angry young men will scatter across the Levant and Europe. Both Iraq and Syria face nearly insurmountable problems.
Syria, Iraq and the international community will have little time to celebrate before the reality of the situation makes itself known.
Both cities will have to be rebuilt. Both cities are faced with a refugee problem of gigantic proportions. Of the 60,000 or so Islamist fighters, not all were killed or captured. Many will filter back to their native countries in Europe and the Arab world.
Are the countries concerned prepared from a security and humanitarian point of view? Will Europe step up to the plate, given how the United States, with President Donald Trump, is preoccupied with domestic issues? The US president’s tweeting addiction may leave him watching from the sidelines. Or will Russia, with its ambitious president, try to fill the void?