For the past 3 years ISIS has instilled fear in Syria, Iraq, the Middle East and even in Europe and North America. Having risen out of the ashes of the all but defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq thanks to the foolish, and callous, policies of the mostly Shiite government in Baghdad, which marginalized the Sunnis of Iraq after American forces withdrew from the country in 2011, ISIS exploded and expanded across Iraq in 2014. After taking Iraqi cities like Mosul, Tikrit, Radama, Fallujah, and then threatening even Baghdad itself, ISIS quickly proved herself not only as a potent terrorist group, but a relatively strong political movement as well. ISIS also expanded into Syria (ironic given how Assad’s secular, Baathist regime did so much to support Al-Qaeda in Iraq) conquering, and consolidating, considerable Sunni territory and cities which had been left vulnerable after years of civil war between the Syrian regime, and a managerie of different rebel and terrorist forces.
If that were not enough, ISIS also managed to accomplish several notable terrorist attacks in major western cities. While the actual death toll, and damage, of these attacks were relatively small it nevertheless refocused western, and American, attention back to the Middle East after the relative conclusion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the decline of Al-Qaeda had seemingly reduced the chances of any real threat from terrorism reaching them.
ISIS was indeed, and in some cases still is, an impressive threat and potent force of terrorism. That it could capture Mosul in Iraq despite being hugely outnumbered, and outgunned, by the Iraqi army, or that it could capture vast swathes of territory in Syria against a ruthless Assad regime that is not above using chemical weapons, or that it not only expanded, made considerable money, and attracted countless recruits for 2 years despite being opposed by most of the world, suggests that ISIS is a formidable terrorist entity to be respected.
However, despite all of this it is easy to see that the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” has not only passed its watermark of expansion, but that it is quickly declining and after its all but certain loss of Mosul, and inevitable loss of Raqqa, it will probably be extinguished sooner than later.
For looking at centuries of resistance, and terrorist groups, ISIS is doomed. It doesn’t matter what ISIS’s religious, or ideological, foundations or practices say, or promotes, because the rules of history always wash such nonsense away. Facts on the ground are more important in deciding wars, and conflict, than misguided rhetoric and ideas blindly followed after reading religious texts.
Simply put the facts on the ground in Iraq suggests Mosul will fall, and arguably a lot quicker than many analysts and people believe.
In order for rebel, or terrorist, groups to survive, let alone succeed, they need either foreign or domestic backing. Such backing includes not only weapons, supplies and recruits, but also political and diplomatic support. Besides this they usually need to win the battle of the narrative, as in media and public opinion. None of this even includes the military situation.
Breaking it down such groups usually need to have the locals backing; to gain recruits, intelligence, or legitimacy for their cause to even begin an effective resistance. Foreign backing is a bonus, and often a decisive one. Sympathetic nations, or self-interested bordering countries, can vastly increase resistance groups chances, and capabilities, by offering money, weapons, political and diplomatic support, or even safe zones across the border to help resistance groups survive and hopefully thrive. Finally, media influence can win over people at the national, or international, level to their cause and pressure unfriendly nations and forces to restrain themselves or even give up the struggle.
There are countless examples of domestic, and/or foreign, backing of resistance groups, and even the influence of media to explain the fate of small wars, insurgencies, and terrorist entities. Obviously the lack of internal support will destroy such groups relatively quickly, as Che Guevara discovered in Bolivia, and similar communist movements discovered in Malaya, Thailand, and other nations. Meanwhile foreign backing has often shown to be decisive in helping resistance groups succeed, as well as fail. Regarding the former there is no doubt that China’s help to Vietnam helped defeat the French, that American aid to the Mujahideen wore down the Soviets in Afghanistan, and Tunisia and Morocco support arguably defeated the French in Algeria instead of the FLN. Regarding the latter Tito’s decision to quit helping the Greek Communists, Iran’s leaving Iraqi Kurds to their fate, and even Britain’s policy to stop supporting native resistance in North America after the “War of 1812” illustrates the importance of having foreign backers for a resistance group.
Then there is the media, which after the battles waged on land, sea, the air, and even space and cyber warfare, can be seen as the 6th dimension of warfare. While the media obviously predates many of the other forms of war, in the 21st century it is arguably among the most decisive. Ever since the “Vietnam War” western countries in general, and America in particular, have understood the necessity to win the media battle. While it would be assumed that a relatively free, and open, media would somehow balance the good and bad of both sides in war somehow, perhaps perversely, liberal democracies have benefitted less from this medium then vapid dictators, bloodthirsty rebels, and fanatical terrorists.
In other words, western countries, and America, have had to fight mostly defensive battles against the media during the past few decades of war whereas dictatorships, and cruel resistance fighters, are usually allowed to get away with murder… literally.
Simply throwing out a few statistics can prove this. Everyone knows America nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing over 100,000 civilians. How many know that Japan killed over 10,000,000 Asians, created 100,000,000 war refugees, or committed mass rape in China in “World War 2?” Likewise, America’s My Lai massacre, her bombing campaign in Vietnam, or her support of dictatorship which fought communism from Korea to Chile are well known. Yet how many remember that Stalin killed 14 million people, Mao countless more, or that Communism killed perhaps 80-100 million people. Then there is the Israel versus the Arabs. Israel, which undoubtedly is no paragon state, killed probably less than 100,000 Arabs and Palestinians during her long wars and conflicts. Meanwhile the Arab world has killed several million of its own, and probably more Palestinians than Israel by the way, from the 8 Year Iran-Iraq War, to the countless coups, civil wars, insurgencies and other horrific conflicts.
While America, Israel and Western countries often have selfish, hypocritical, goals it is simply astounding that so many people often blindly see despotic nations and cruel resistance groups as non-entities at best, or victims at worse.
Looking at internal and foreign support, as well as media influence, it is obvious that ISIS enjoys none of these in any notable degree. That in itself is a huge mark against it. Whatever internal support ISIS had among the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria has all but faded. Initially they had much support from the Sunnis in Iraq thanks to the Shiite masters in Baghdad marginalizing, and oppressing, the Sunnis after America withdrew her last forces in 2011. Meanwhile the Sunnis in Syria also initially supported ISIS thanks to Assad’s favouring his Alawis sect, as well as Christians and other groups, over the more numerous yet increasingly disenfranchised Sunnis. Much like Al-Qaeda ISIS championed itself as a protector of the Sunnis and promised stability, and social assistance, to people who were understandably war wearied and scared.
However, the honeymoon period soon ended and instead of moderating their ideology to keep the relatively secular Sunnis of Iraq and Syria happy, and committed to its cause, ISIS instead meted out a brutal regime of persecution, harsh punishments, rape, torture, death and fear. Perhaps people need to remember what terrorist movements are formed to do; as Lenin famously said “the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize.” ISIS is simply not a resistance group trying to save the Sunnis: It is in fact a harsh fundamentalist group with no respect for human rights, gender equality, gays or different religious nominations, or frankly the dignify and advancement of mankind.
ISIS kills people for not being Muslims (and it has to be their exact type of Islam), for being gay, or for breaking trivial laws or rules. It kidnaps countless women and uses them as sex slaves. Smoking, drugs, alcohol, and other luxuries, are banned and people are punished if they don’t pray 5 times a day, if their beards are not long enough, or if they can’t recite Qu’ran verses properly. This is hardly a brave new world for the Middle East.
Not surprisingly this has alienated all but a tiny minority of the Sunni population which had initially welcomed ISIS. Now ISIS rules via fear, coercion and terror, which of course suits it since it is an unabashed terrorist movement. For terrorism is an effective means of controlling a vast population. By using cruel, calculating, and often random acts of terror against their subjects ISIS, like countless groups before it, has easily cowed her people into obedience. This is how a group of 5000-7000 fighters can control a city of more than a million like Mosul.
Yet the downside of this sort of regime can be seen by how Iraqi forces were able to liberate Ramadi, Tikrit, Fallujah and other cities from ISIS. The people of these cities had no love for ISIS after being terrorized by them and thus left the group to its fate instead of helping it hold onto power. Given the reports of ISIS executing people, or using them as human shields, in Mosul, or that many civilians are already fleeing from the city (the UN and other relief groups are expecting 100s of 1000s will flee) it is obvious ISIS will not be able to rely on internal support during this battle.
ISIS has even less foreign support. No notable country in the region, or the wider world, supports them with money, arms, supplies or diplomatic support. Most terrorist, or resistance, groups find ISIS’s cruelty too heinous even for them (Al-Qaeda itself disowned them). ISIS is a willing enemy of all countries, not a particularly smart strategy when you are trying to create a multinational caliphate. It has united a menagerie of nations which share no real geopolitical goals, or interests, except for the elimination of ISIS. Russia and America, rivals across the globe are both fighting ISIS. The autocratic kingdoms of the Gulf and Jordan, as well as secular Iraq, Syria, and Turkey are fighting ISIS. The Fundamentalist regime in Iran, and her proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon are fighting ISIS. NATO is also in the fight after several notable ISIS attacks in Europe. The only foreign support ISIS has is the foreign fighters they have recruited from Chechnya, Europe and other places who have come to fight for a multitude of reasons.
Despite this isolation ISIS initially thrived; gaining territory, creating the semblance of an economy, and giving social assistance to the people under its control. However, fighting the whole world never really works out (look at the Germans and Japanese in “World War 2”) and ISIS’s enemies have slowly worn down its manpower, money and territory after a few years of attrition.
As for media influence ISIS again fails. Certainly they have used media successfully to the extent that they have spread terror, and panic, across much of the Middle East, Europe and America. They have also used it effectively to recruit a lot of fighters to the cause. However, they have failed abysmally to garner any international, or even local, sympathy for their cause. ISIS might be the one resistance group throughout history that hasn’t won over a significant amount of public opinion in liberal democracies. Whereas communist groups, who collectively murdered 100 million people, always had supporters, especially during the “Vietnam War,” and terrorist groups in the Middle East have usually garnered more sympathy on campuses, and in the media, than democratic Israel or America, ISIS has no such following. There are no western “useful idiots,” or naive intellectuals, who promote ISIS’s ideology, or western reporters, or celebrities, who defend its regime whilst ISIS itself routinely murders these sorts of people in Iraq and Syria.
Perhaps this is because ISIS, unlike other resistance groups, not only fails to hide its cruelties, but actually parades them proudly. It doesn’t realize like groups before it that the battle of the narrative matters in winning small wars because ISIS simply believes in its crooked faith, and ideals, that it will win because it is supposedly on the right side of history. ISIS doesn’t hire, or nurture the type of soft spoken, clean-shaved, well dressed and articulate spokesmen that other groups have used to show a supposedly more civilized, and progressive side of their organization.
Thus in the fight for Mosul ISIS enjoys no notable internal, foreign, or media support. As for the military situation ISIS is likewise doomed. The number of ISIS fighters in Mosul is estimated at 5000-7000. Meanwhile it is opposed by 100,000 which includes nearly 50,000 Iraqi army troops, and a menagerie of Kurdish soldiers, Shiite militias, other groups and some American advisors. However, the brunt of the assault will be borne by the Iraqi army which is the only force being allowed to enter the city; most likely to prevent potential sectarian conflict.
The Iraqi force is backed by significant airpower and heavy equipment while ISIS has none of the former and little of the latter. However, numbers and firepower aren’t everything, especially when one remembers how ISIS itself conquered Mosul against a stronger Iraqi force 2 years ago. However, much has changed since then; mostly against ISIS’s favour.
Iraq’s army is better prepared than it was two years ago. With American advisors (who presumably left Iraq in 2011) helping Iraq again, the Iraqi army first slowed ISIS, and then rebuilt and re-equipped themselves, and finally went back onto the offensive; going onto liberating most of ISIS’s strongholds in Iraq. This has been a slow painful process, but it is clear on the ground that ISIS is losing. Looking at the 3 battles where the Iraqi army liberated Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah we can see that Iraqi forces have the capacity to engage and defeat ISIS in urban warfare. These battles were lengthy, often lasting 1-2 months, but in all of them ISIS forces were first surrounded, then systematically squeezed, and finally overrun, destroyed or expunged.
While Mosul is indeed a bigger prospect than these other cities the Iraqi forces outnumber ISIS here more than in the other cases, and the strategic situation facing ISIS is actually worse in this situation. Not only is ISIS severely outnumbered, and outgunned, but they will soon be completely encircled by the Iraqi army, Kurdish forces, and other allies. Meanwhile the Iraqi army is becoming more competent, and efficient, while ISIS is struggling to gain, let alone keep, recruits and its morale must be faltering. Increasing instances of desertions, supposed maladies, and evidence that some ISIS forces are readying to flee Mosul reinforce these signs of ISIS degeneration. Besides losing territory and troops, ISIS is also losing money and resources, thanks to the ever decreasing ground they hold, and the significant efforts of Iraqi forces and coalition airpower.
ISIS has no allies coming to its aid, no reinforcements strong enough to relieve Mosul, and no weapons strong enough to defeat a strong determined Iraqi assault against the city. ISIS has no chance of winning the battle of Mosul on its own. The best it could hope for is to somehow inflict enough casualties on the Iraqi army to give them reprieve, or hope the potential humanitarian crisis which will probably engulf Mosul soon to dissuade western support for the offensive. They could even pray American, and Iraqi forces, cause enough collateral damage to weaken the coalition.
These factors have had effects on earlier American, or Israeli, operations in the region. However, none of them are likely to occur in this case. High Iraqi casualties in earlier battles in Tikrit, Radami, and Fallujah did not stop these offensives, and it’s hard to see ISIS doing a better job in Mosul given that the Iraqi army enjoys even more superiority in this battle, that it is better prepared, and that ISIS fighters probably have less motivation and morale than before. A humanitarian, or refugee, disaster probably wouldn’t stop the offensive either. America, and Europe, frankly never cared enough about the millions of refugees in Iraq, and Syria, which resulted from these conflicts, to do anything meaningful. They didn’t even punish Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people; despite suggesting they would if he did so.
As for collateral damage from American, Iraqi, or coalition forces western, and American, public opinion probably won’t be overly effected. No considerable indignation resulted from the costly Iraqi liberation of Ramadi, Tikrit, or Fallujah, where much of the cities were destroyed, nor has any come from the considerable coalition bombing campaigns against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There are many reasons for this; not least of all the significant terrorist coups ISIS accomplished in Belgium, France and other western countries. Then there is the odd phenomenon where western opinion is much more likely to criticize Israelis killing Arabs, or American soldiers killing Arabs on the ground, than criticizing Arabs or Muslims killing each other.
This may seem controversial but each time Israel kills a few thousand Palestinians, or Lebanese, such as in 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2014, there has always been world wide protests, condemnations, severe outrage and passionate anger. Likewise, most American invasions, or interventions, in the region, causes the same things, though obviously the death tolls are higher, perhaps 10s of 1000s instead. Meanwhile Arabs killing Arabs, or frankly non-Israelis or westerners killing Muslims like Russia in Chechnya (and recently in Syria) never arouses even a small portion of the outrage, anger, or protests versus the former kind despite frankly killing vast more scores of Arabs and Muslims.
Look at the numbers: Israel has killed less than 100,000 Arabs and Palestinians, combined in the past 70 years whereas Assad’s civil war has cost almost 400,000 Syrian lives in 5 years. America’s intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has been very costly, and while the higher estimates of closer to a million are ludicrous a case can be made that at least 200,000 Iraqis, and Afghans, have died in these wars since 2002. Yet Arabs, and Muslims, have killed perhaps millions of each other since 1945 from civil wars in Jordan, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen (the list goes on), conventional wars from the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Egyptian-Libyan war, the Jordan-Syrian war (the list goes on again), and brutal insurgencies, and terrorism from multiple Muslim Brotherhood insurgencies across the region, Al-Qaeda ones against multiple nations, Palestinian terrorism against Arab countries, Taliban excesses and ISIS’s atrocities (the list still goes on). Because frankly despite all the supposed altruistic nonsense emanating from people who chastise America and Israel, who claim they are fair and objective, they almost always know nothing about Arabs and Muslims killing other Arabs and Muslims, and certainly don’t know most of the wars and conflicts just stated, and often just don’t care as much if people in the Middle East are dying horrible deaths as long as it isn’t Americans or Israelis doing it.
As such coalition airstrikes against a universally despised entity such as ISIS, and potential war crimes, or excesses, by the Iraqi army or its allies, probably wouldn’t motivate world opinion, especially western, to stop the fight. The Iraqi army could probably summarily execute every single ISIS personnel captured during the battle and the West wouldn’t blink.
Therefore ISIS won’t win this battle of Mosul (like many major cities in the Middle East there have been multiple battles for it), and will lose it sooner than later. Maybe it will be a few weeks, maybe even a month or two, but it is unlikely it will fester on like Stalingrad or Sarajevo. ISIS no longer enjoys internal support amongst Sunnis in Iraq, or Syria, certainly has no significant foreign backing among nations, or powerful groups, and the world media is generally against her. Militarily ISIS in Mosul is severely outnumbered and outgunned, close to being completely surrounded and cut off, and is perhaps finally outclassed by Iraqi forces. Meanwhile any chance to stop, or delay, her defeat in Mosul will not succeed due to her pariah status, and the fact that global opinion won’t care enough to stop the battle despite significant casualties, humanitarian disasters, or potential Iraqi or allied war crimes.
ISIS’s stranglehold of Mosul is over… It just doesn’t know it yet.
However, what will an Iraqi government victory in Mosul accomplish? On the plus side it will deprive ISIS of her last major stronghold in Iraq, and probably relegate ISIS back to a traditional resistance group which focuses on terrorism, and guerrilla tactics, instead of hoping to hold onto territory, and populated areas, in a vain attempt to maintain an illusory caliphate. It could even potentially lead to a collapse, sooner or later, of ISIS in Iraq if their leadership concludes they should cut their losses in Mesopotamia and focus the struggle in Syria. Either way ISIS, as a potential government, or state as a whole, is doomed as America and her allies in Syria are already advancing plans to take Raqqa in Syria (ISIS’s de-facto) capital, and since defeating ISIS is perhaps the only thing Assad, Russia, America, and Syria’s other rebel groups can agree on, there is no doubt that even ISIS’s strongholds in Syria will collapse in time.
As for her status as a terrorist/resistance group, ISIS’s future is uncertain. Despite its wickedness and uncompromising views, ISIS deserves respect for what it accomplished against considerable odds. Conquering vast swaths of territory in two counties, managing significant terrorist attacks against Europe and elsewhere, and rejuvenating terrorism as a whole ISIS definitely proved itself a cut above even proven terrorist organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. However, her great victories also probably guaranteed her likely defeat. Whereas the former 3 organizations often knew when to hold back, hesitate, or not alienate everyone, ISIS attacked everyone, and everything, and as a result has the whole world against her. ISIS may survive for some time to come, especially if copy-cat organizations pay homage, and loyalty, to her. However, ISIS’s major successes are now in the past and it will inevitably decline to either destruction or irrelevance.
The real question is what will replace it. This is perhaps the most important point to consider. Battles are won, and lost, in the Middle East all the time; what matters is what happens afterwards.
For the region in general, and Iraq in particular, things rarely change for the better. In Iraq stagnant Ottoman rule was replaced by opportunistic British rule between WW1 and WW2. Thereupon Iraq alternated between corrupt monarchies, rubber stamp parliaments, and finally a mafia style regime under Saddam Hussein until the 21st century (all of which emphasized using the better off Sunni tribes to dominate the Shiites and Kurds). Americans entered this mix idealistically, if foolishly, trying to turn Iraq into a legitimate democracy within 10 years when America itself took centuries to do so herself.
Despite horrific losses, setbacks, and sectarian warfare America had, by the time it left Iraq in 2011, left a relatively fair balance of power between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds in the country, as well as a fledging democracy. Had she continued to watch and help Iraq maybe ISIS and all of its suffering would not have flourished. However, with Americans tired of war, casualties, and increasing economic woes, the American administration washed its hands regarding Iraq and adopted a stand off policy.
This allowed the mostly Shiite government in Baghdad to oppress the Sunnis (as the Shiites had been oppressed by them before), back the latter into a corner, and help lead to the creation of ISIS. Which of course led to American intervention again, without ground troops this time, and the slow battle to combat ISIS which has come to Mosul right now.
Which again begs the question “Where do we go from here?” Sometimes it seems as though nothing works in the Middle East. While most problems are blamed on European, or American, intervention their major issues predate this. Few debate that the Ottoman Empire (which ruled and had a more direct impact on Muslims and Arabs much longer than western influence) was a stagnant, and morally bankrupt entity by its dying days; the Armenian genocide in WW1 can attest to that. Meanwhile, unlike considerable differences between western states and democracies, Arab countries have almost inevitably had the same issues, and problems, no matter who’s in charge, or what systems they have. Since WW2 the Middle East has gone through Pan-Arabism, Communism, Socialism or Baathism, and then more and more fundamentalist and violent ideologies. Notice how liberalism and democracy aren’t included; because with a few exceptions such as Iran in the early 1950’s, and notably Israel and Turkey, these are not popular ideas in the region.
Democrats, and liberals, tend to be moderates, and non-violent ones at that. They are typically, though not always, educated, reasonable, and even tempered. In a region where many people are considerably illiterate, or at least poorly educated, and where the government, and often society, encourages them to not only be angry at outside and foreign influences, but to fight them as well, it is hardly a surprise that moderates in the Middle East are as hard to find as Waldo.
Therefore while it is easy to see that the liberation of Mosul will probably result in the slow downfall of ISIS, it is hard to see what the long term ramifications will be. Will the Iraqi government in Baghdad finally see that Iraq’s core problems will only be solved by earnest reconciliation between Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, or will it pretend to play nice until America and the West lose interest once more? Will the Iraqi people in general, and the Arabs in particular, stop playing the blame game against outside forces and attempt to look seriously at their own problems, or will they succumb to anger and bitterness and continue the lesser Jihad again and again? Will America, and the west, finally realize its better to back freedom in the Middle East, whatever the short term inconveniences, or continue to support backward dictators or corrupt monarchs despite the long term perils?
There are no easy answers of course. However, it goes without saying that a military victory in Mosul against ISIS would be limited, if not shallow, without a subsequent political domestic one in Iraq. Despite ISIS’s evil ways the Sunnis supported them for a reason; that being that the government in Baghdad not only neglected them, but actively persecuted them. People across the Middle East enjoy lamenting how westerners, and Americans, are ignorant about history. But if the leaders in Baghdad knew their own history well they would never have oppressed the Sunnis after 2011, or allowed a terrorist organization so base and wicked as ISIS to begin or expand. America, or the West can’t fix the Middle East; it’s up to the people living there.
Lets us pray they are finally up to it.