By Rutvi Saxena
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a fundamentalist group recognising itself as a state and caliphate for Muslims worldwide. It has been making news for imposing an orthodox and austere doctrine of Sunni Islam on citizens. Designated a terrorist organisation by the UN, ISIS has been charged with “ethnic cleansing” by Amnesty International and is also known for its videos of beheadings of civilians and journalists and destruction of heritage buildings.
At its peak, ISIS ruled over as many as 8 million people, which is equal to the entire country of Jordan. Now, its influence is spread over 3 percent of Iraq, and less than 5 percent of Syria. Such a defeat of this formidable group is one that no one saw coming, not even those who were themselves engaged in war with ISIS. There are several factors that have led to this victory.
Direction of the Trump administration
Trump promised to “bomb the hell out of ISIS”, and has lived up his promise. Following a policy that allowed the soldiers on the battlefield to make the decisions instead of the bureaucrats back home, he has given the military much more freedom than his predecessor and they have found it liberating. “The leadership team that is in place right now has certainly enabled us to succeed,” Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft, the ranking U.S. Air Force officer in Iraq, told Fox News. “I couldn’t ask for a better leadership team to work for, to enable the military to do what it does best.” Indeed, the speed with which they could capture ISIS territory came as a surprise to the fighters themselves. Marine Col. Seth Folsom, who led the expedition in Al Qaim close to the Syrian Border, was quoted as saying “I never felt constrained. In a lot of ways, I felt quite liberated because we had a clear mandate and there was no questioning that.” Thus, the liberty and tactical shift in strategy were, undoubtedly, of great benefit to the military in organising the attack against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Yet, it would be premature to give Trump and his army all the credit since they just form half the picture. Iraqi forces are the invaluable remaining half.
Iraqi counter-terrorism forces at work
Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi led the “Golden Division” of Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, which fought the battle on the ground and suffered many casualties. A hero in his native country for his leadership, he confidently asserted that all that remained of ISIS in Iraq were some “sleeper cells”. In fact, while Trump was quick to take credit for the defeat of ISIS, claiming it hadn’t happened before because “Trump was not your president”, Saadi did not agree with such claims. Having led the Iraqi forces against ISIS for two years, he was confused at being questioned if there was genuinely any difference in American support during this while. “There was no difference between the support given by Obama and Trump.” He went on to say that American logistical and intelligence support and US airpower accounted for “50% of the success of the battle”.
The support being referred to was provided by a coalition of several countries led by the US, who came together to stand against ISIS. American Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said in a statement, “ A coalition of 68 members—65 nations with more joining as we speak, plus Interpol, the European Union and Arab League—united in opposition, sharing intelligence, providing troops and funds for combat and, of no less importance, for the post-combat recovery.” It has been a combined effort that brought the Islamic State to its knees, however, the peace that has been achieved remains fragile. The real hardship lies in maintaining it.
Caution going into the future
The circumstances that led to the uprising of ISIS in Iraq and Syria continue to prevail. The civil war is still going on, and the society continues to be divided along religious, ethnic and sectarian lines. The US National Counterterrorism Centre found evidence suggesting that ISIS is operational in 18 countries across the world, including Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is also believed to have “aspiring branches” in Mali, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. Insurgents continue to pose a threat to Baghdad, Damascus and a few other cities.
ISIS grew out of the discontent of Sunni militants with the Assad regime. The Middle Eastern countries will have to take precautions to ensure no faction feels alienated to an extent that another terrorist organisation is born. Moreover, ISIS was able to propagate its ideology online and reach people across the world, and sympathise with their views. There could be a resurgence in the recruitment of these people who will not be too happy with the defeat of ISIS. For now, their diminishing influence is a cause for celebration, albeit a careful one. “I urge everyone to refrain from returning to the inflammatory and sectarian discourse that empowered gangs to occupy our cities and villages,” Prime Minister of Iraq said, speaking on Iraq’s liberation from ISIS.”Our people have paid a dear price,” he added. “We must turn this page forever.”
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