ISIS will lose Mosul and Raqqa. What happens next?

Bron: Washington Post – Daily Newsletter

By Ishaan Tharoor – 5-7-2017

The jihadists of the Islamic State are finally being driven out of their two main bastions: The northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa. For some three years, their ability to control these two urban centers, particularly Mosul, served as warped validation of their ambitions to build a modern-day caliphate.

Now, after months of airstrikes and a prolonged U.S.-backed offensive, the jihadists are in retreat. Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hailed the recapture of Mosul’s historic Great Mosque of al-Nuri, which had been tragically reduced to rubble by the militants, as the “end” of the jihadists’ “state of falsehood.” It was from that site in 2014 that the Islamic State declared the advent of its caliphate. Iraqi forces are in what seems the final stages of an intense house-by-house battle to reclaim the last streets of the city still occupied by the militants.

On Tuesday, U.S. authorities announced that their allies on the ground in Syria — the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF — had breached a wall surrounding Raqqa’s Old City after “overcoming heavy ISIS resistance.” After months of relentless airstrikes on the city, the Islamic State’s fighters in Raqqa now must face their enemy in the streets.

Brett McGurk, the top U.S. civilian official coordinating the fight against the Islamic State, hailed the moment as a “key milestone” in the “campaign to liberate the city.”

But even if the Islamic State is losing, nobody ought to rest on their laurels. Countless civilians remain vulnerable and in need of aid, at risk of hunger and disease as well as the violent reprisals of militants. In Mosul, dozens, perhaps hundreds, have perished amid coalition airstrikes.

“Civilians escaping right now speak of horrific experiences. They have been caught between aerial bombardment, artillery, snipers and car bombs. They live in fear; they hide in their homes without food or water,” said Iolanda Jaquemet, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, to my colleagues.

In Raqqa, too, hundreds of thousands of people are caught in the crossfire, with casualty numbers rising as a result of airstrikes as well as sniper fire and brutal executions carried out by the jihadists to intimidate those still trapped in the city.

In this context of violence and trauma, securing peace will be far harder than winning the war. A new report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point emphasized “the importance of post-liberation security, governance, and politics.” It tracked hundreds of attacks launched by the Islamic State in areas where they had supposedly already been driven out, noting the persistence of militant cells in cities “liberated” from their rule.

“Simply pushing the Islamic State out of a formal governing position in Iraq and Syria, while an important first step, will not ensure the achievement of these post-liberation tasks and reduce the likelihood that the Islamic State or some other terrorist organization emerges to take advantage of a tenuous peace,” wrote the report’s authors, Daniel Milton and Muhammad al-Ubaydi.

This is where things really get complicated. In Iraq, Mosul’s “liberation” is only the first act in a tense drama unfolding in the country’s north, where the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad will struggle to reassert control. The Iraqi Kurds, crucial to the battle against the Islamic State, are now pushing for an independence referendum in their autonomous region. Local Sunnis remain distrustful of — if not outright hostile to — a number of Iranian-backed militias that have helped fill the security vacuum.

“Much of the battle against ISIS has taken place in a region that has been fought over ever since oil was found in Kirkuk in the 1930s,” wrote Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “The deeper conflicts here — between Arabs and Kurds, between Shia and Sunni, between neighboring powers such as Iran and Turkey, and among the Kurds themselves — will only escalate as the victors, fortified by weapons supplies and military training provided by foreign governments, engage in a mad scramble for the spoils.”

The Raqqa campaign, too, is shaped by geopolitical complexity. The SDF, backed by the United States, is reviled by Turkey for its connections to the outlawed PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that both Ankara and Washington deem a terrorist organization. My colleague Alice Martins recently journeyed with a detachment of SDF fighters to the Raqqa front.

SDF soldiers take aim at a minaret, where they think an ISIS sniper is positioned on the western edge of Raqqa, Syria. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

SDF soldiers take aim at a minaret, where they think an ISIS sniper is positioned on the western edge of Raqqa, Syria. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)

“Some of the commanders I met appeared to have a more direct connection to the PKK, speaking with a Turkish accent or else refusing to say where they were from,” wrote Martins. “Often, they did not know the names of the villages or neighborhoods where they were fighting.”

In Washington, civilian and military planners are already preparing for the next stage of the war in Syria. It looks, as my colleague Karen DeYoung wrote, to be “a complex fight that will bring them into direct conflict with Syrian government and Iranian forces contesting control of a vast desert stretch in the eastern part of the country.”

Clashes have already taken place, with the U.S. shooting down drones used by Iranian-backed militias. The risk of an escalating American military commitment in Syria, potentially locked in conflict with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — something the Obama administration tried to avoid — now seems more of a reality under President Trump.

Still, there appears to be a divide between the White House and officials in the Pentagon, the latter eager to avoid getting sucked into the Syrian war and the prospect of removing Assad. The widespread chaos and uncertainty is its own kind of valediction for the Islamic State.

“The fact is that, although ISIS’s audacious ultraviolence ultimately set the scene for its material undoing, it also meant that it could work towards creating the world it wanted to inhabit — a polarized, turbulent place that accommodated the jihadist ideology uncannily well,” wrote Charlie Winter of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization in London.

In this current environment, the root causes that led to the emergence of the Islamic State — political turmoil, sectarian tensions and shoddy governance — won’t be getting addressed any time soon.

• BuzzFeed’s Anup Kaphle points to a small ray of hope in Mosul: He interviewed Mosul Eye, an anonymous blogger who has been chronicling life in the beleaguered city for the past three years. Now he’s leading a project to rebuild Mosul’s central library. From Kaphle’s story:

“Mosul Eye said they have collected about 10,000 books so far — the group aims to collect 200,000 books for the reopening of the library. Many of them have been shipped to and collected in the city of Irbil, where a team of volunteers are labeling and sorting them…

“Since ISIS ravaged his hometown, Mosul Eye said he’s spent a lot of his time reading — T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ are among his favorites.

“Even though Mosul Eye knows the library will never be the same again, he said he hopes it will once again be a ‘beacon for knowledge and arts’ where young, curious minds in Mosul can come to learn about the city and the world’s history.

‘We need to reconnect Mosul again with the rest of the world,’ he said. ‘We will need the world to take the same amount of interest it has after ISIS took over the city. Don’t abandon us now.’”

• Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first Indian premier in a quarter-century to visit Israel. Modi exchanged hugs and many pleasantries with his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of a landmark visit preceded by the announcement of $2 billion Indian outlay for new Israeli missiles and air defense systems.

For years, India, steeped in the socialist ethos of the Non-Aligned Movement, viewed Israel in the same vein as apartheied South Africa — a Western imperialist proxy that repressed the people of the global South. But the ferocity of that moral opposition has since faded.

“India has long embraced the Palestinian cause and kept its distance from Israel to protect its interests in the Arab world,” noted the New York Times. “But Mr. Modi seems as eager as Mr. Netanyahu to delink Israel from the Palestinian question and, notably, will not be combining his trip with a courtesy visit to the Palestinian Authority.”

• Two fascinating discoveries in the realms of archaeology: Researchers digging in Mexico City claim to have found an Aztec “tower” of human skulls, linked to the practice of human sacrifice, that dates back at least five centuries and was once observed by Spanish conquistadors.

Scientists also cracked the secret behind the durability of ancient Roman water-based structures: It appears Roman concrete, made from a recipe of volcanic ash, lime, seawater and volcanic rock, grows stronger over time — a contrast to modern-day materials.

The Roman stuff is “an extraordinarily rich material in terms of scientific possibility,” said Philip Brune, a research scientist at DuPont Pioneer who has studied the engineering properties of Roman monuments. “It’s the most durable building material in human history, and I say that as an engineer not prone to hyperbole.”

Experts now suggest an adapted form of Roman concrete can help to mitigate against rising sea levels.

A Hwasong-14&nbsp;missile is test-fired in North Korea&nbsp;on an unknown date. (Korean Central News Agency via Reuters)</p>

A Hwasong-14 missile is test-fired in North Korea on an unknown date. (Korean Central News Agency via Reuters)

Here we go again

For America’s national holiday, North Korea offered up a fireworks display nobody wanted.

Pyongyang claimed on Tuesday that it successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, a potential milestone in its campaign to develop a nuclear-tipped weapon capable of hitting the mainland United States. The State Department confirmed the claim later in the day, and experts said the missile could be capable of a 4,000-mile range — a sufficient distance to strike all of Alaska.

“This is a big deal: It’s an ICBM, not a ‘kind of’ ICBM,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “And there’s no reason to think that this is going to be the maximum range.”

Tuesday’s news will renew questions about the development of weapons that Trump, as president-elect, vowed to stop. Trump took to Twitter as news of the test broke, calling out North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and appearing to once again urge China to do more to pressure him.

“Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer,” he wrote. “Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all.”

Kim Jong Un has now launched more missiles in one year than his father did in 17 years in power. The number and variety of tests worry experts who see each step as part of a march toward a missile capable of striking the mainland U.S. Many believe North Korea already has weapons that could hit East Asia — including U.S. bases in the region.

At the moment, Trump’s attempt to have China pressure Pyongyang looks to be at an impasse. On June 21, Trump tweeted that, although he appreciated Beijing’s efforts, “it has not worked out.” China, meanwhile, insists it is doing all it can and seems angry about being singled out. “The United States itself should take actions, not always depend on China for everything,” said Zhang Liangui, a retired professor from Communist Party’s Central Party School.

It’s not yet clear how the latest news will affect the standoff. The U.S. and South Korea conducted a joint missile exercise in response, but John Delury, an Asia expert at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said there may be a political imperative for Trump to downplay the significance of the test.

Trump “set an implicit red line,” said Delury, “and it doesn’t look good if the North Koreans skipped across the line when he wasn’t looking.” — Emily Rauhala

Supporters and members of Turkey's Republican People's Party on the 19th day of the party's&nbsp;&quot;March for Justice&quot; near Izmit, Turkey, on July 3. (Ziya&nbsp;Koseoglu/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images and Republican People's Party)</p>

Supporters and members of Turkey’s Republican People’s Party on the 19th day of the party’s “March for Justice” near Izmit, Turkey, on July 3. (Ziya Koseoglu/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images and Republican People’s Party)

The big question

It’s been a year since a coup attempt in Turkey failed, and it hasn’t been a good one for Turkey’s opposition parties. The post-coup purges and crackdowns launched by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have battered his political opponents, and numerous politicians — even members of parliament — have been thrown in jail. But those seemingly cowed opponents have organized a weeks-long “march for justice” from the Turkish capital, Ankara, to Istanbul, which has attracted growing crowds along its route and possibly breathed new life into the opposition. So we asked Post Istanbul bureau chief Kareem Fahim: What is the opposition march achieving, if anything?

“If nothing else, the march has undoubtedly invigorated the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, the main opposition party. The CHP suffered a bitter defeat in April when Erdogan prevailed in a referendum expanding his powers.

“It may have redeemed them a bit, too. The CHP was criticized for its cautious response to widespread allegations of voter fraud during the referendum, including a decision not to hold street demonstrations that angered even some of the party’s own leaders.

I attended the march on Day 13. CHP leaders, having walked miles, were in total agony but could hardly contain their glee — not only at having pulled the rally off at all, but also at provoking more and more aggressive denunciations from Erdogan’s government. As one columnist put it, the CHP was finally “setting the agenda” in a Turkish political scene long dominated by Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party.

The march also seemed to have succeeded in highlighting government arrests and dismissals in Turkey over the last year. The CHP cleverly focused its slogans on the broad theme of ‘justice’ rather than on individual cases, making it harder for the government to easily dismiss the complaints.

“Aytug Atici, a CHP lawmaker who joined the march, admitted to me that the party ‘needed something like this.’ Other marchers I spoke to seemed happy that someone, somehow, was taking some visible action — even if it was only a start.

But both the government and the CHP seemed anxious to avoid a clash as the march heads for Istanbul — the kind of confrontation that would alter Turkey’s political dynamics in a much more dramatic way.”

The National and The Japan Times have deeper looks at two of the big problems we’ve discussed today: what happens to Iraq after Mosul’s recapture, and how the Islamic State will soldier on after its caliphate ends. Elsewhere, indulge us in two more bits of Americana for the holiday: a piece from The Post examining America’s religious roots, and a funny article from The New York Times on finding the real America at Hooters.

Mosul’s fall won’t stop Islamic State group spreading fear
By relying on lone wolf attacks by individuals who are self-radicalized, Islamic State can continue to spread fear even as its caliphate crumbles.
By Mohamad Bazzi | The Japan Times  •  Read more »
It will take an aggressive nationalism to put Iraq back together again  
The end of ISIL could reignite ethnic and sectarian competition across the country. If Iraq’s prime minister doesn’t have an answer, there are others waiting in the wings.
By Faisal Al Yafai | The National  •  Read more »
What politicians mean when they say the United States was founded as a Christian nation
When conservatives recall the country’s past, what they’re really talking about is America’s future.
By Sam Haselby | The Washington Post  •  Read more »
Going to Hooters and seeing America
The restaurant exposed four Pakistani kids to the crass yet oddly family-friendly side of this country.
By Mohammad Zia Adnan | The New York Times  •  Read more »

 

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