photo by Sgt. Shawn Miller, courtesy DVIDSHUB
To borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, victory in the battle for Mosul – which won’t come quickly, if at all – will not mark the beginning of the end of the self-proclaimed Islamic State; at best, it will mark the end of the beginning.
Kurdish militia and Iraqi military forces opened the assault on villages east of the city, which once housed a Sunni majority but diverse population of some 2 million, under a nearly full moon early Monday. By nightfall the first of those villages had been liberated, after more than two years of often brutally violent rule by the extremists. The assault was backed by U.S. and British air strikes, and American special forces were nearby to help their Iraqi counterparts, officially from behind the front lines.
Those American special forces are a faint shadow of the U.S. presence that, for good or ill but almost certainly for both, changed the face of Iraq following the 2003 invasion. Mosul is where Task Force 20, a joint effort involving Army Rangers, Navy SEALs and other special forces, teamed up with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to kill Saddam Hussein’s two vicious sons, Uday and Qusay, in July of that year. A few months earlier, just after the invasion began, Qusay Hussein and an associate showed up at the Mosul branch of Iraq’s central bank and “withdrew” $920 million on his father’s written orders. It was considered the world’s largest bank robbery at the time, and dwarfed even the $400 million that the Islamic State group is said to have corralled from the same institution when it took control of Mosul in June 2014.
Those episodes, along with the wave of militant attacks that swept Mosul and other parts of Iraq after the U.S. invasion, must seem like the good old days to the remaining and much-beleaguered residents of Mosul. They have been displaced, extorted and forcibly made to observe the militants’ extremely limited view of Islam – and that is those who already subscribed to the Sunni version of their faith. Shiites, whom the militants view as heretics, and members of other faiths have clearly suffered much worse. Resisters have been summarily killed, often in public to intimidate the rest of the populace.
Mosul is the latest and largest target in a drive to liberate Iraqi territory, particularly population centers and their associated oil facilities and other infrastructure, from Islamic State control. Militants were pushed back from the outskirts of Baghdad, where they were close enough to threaten the capital’s airport, and from the smaller cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. The Obama administration has been quick to point out these gains in this election season, in part to counter criticism that had the administration not withdrawn American forces from Iraq during Obama’s first term, the Islamic State group would not have been able to rise from the ashes of the long-defeated al-Qaida in Iraq and seize a large swath of territory in that country and in neighboring Syria.
But it did, and that Syrian territory – including the de facto Islamic State capital of Raqqa – is likely to stay in the group’s hands for a considerable period. That is why the fall of Mosul will not, by itself, lead to anything like the destruction of the Islamic State group.
Let’s look again to World War II for guidance. In June 1944 the allies invaded northern Europe on the beaches of Normandy. Paris was liberated two months later.
But it took eight more months, and many more lives, before the Nazi government in Berlin fell. Victory came only after the enemy capital was captured by Soviet forces coming from the east, while Allied forces moving into Germany from France and the Low Countries deprived Hitler of his industrial base in his country’s western regions.
Defeating the Islamic State group will require taking away the territory it will still control, most notably in Syria, after the presumed fall of Mosul. But there is no evidence whatsoever that anyone is prepared to do this, and considerable reason to believe the contrary.
In the crazy world that is Middle East geopolitics, the Sunni militants of the Islamic State group serve the interests of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is aligned with the Shiite government of Iran, which the militants consider heretical. Iran wants to keep Assad in power in Syria to assure a safe corridor to reach its strategic allies in Lebanon – Hezbollah, who are currently the primary vehicle through which the Iranians can attack Israel. And Russia, another of Assad’s supporters, also wants to keep him in power as a check on U.S. and other western influence in the region.
Assad doesn’t want a strong Islamic State group to challenge his control of his own country, where he is already engaged in a civil war against opponents. But it serves his interests to have a weakened Islamic State group to act as a buffer against hostile Kurds and to keep the West focused on preventing the group from launching additional terrorist attacks in places like Brussels, Paris and San Bernardino.
So unlike the situation in Iraq, we are not going to find American special forces coaching Syria’s military in tactics to dislodge the Islamic State group from Raqqa. We are not going to see troops loyal to Assad launching an assault to free that city, and even if we did, it is unlikely his forces would coordinate with our Air Force. Assad would turn to Russia instead. But for now, he has no reason to want to eliminate the Islamic State group. As long as that group is active in Syria, he can tell the world that his government is the lesser of two evils. As bad as he is, he would be correct.
There is nothing easy about driving the Islamic State group out of Iraq, but as things go in this struggle, doing so is the easier part of the battle to “destroy ISIS,” as Islamic State group is also known, which both presidential candidates promise to do. The question is who will do the destroying and how to deprive the militants of their Syrian stronghold. There is no obvious answer.