The war against the Islamic State, currently being waged (to varying degrees) by the United States, Iraq, Iraqi Kurds, Iran, Syria, Syrian Kurds, Syrian Rebels, Turkey, and Russia is approaching a big turning point. The Islamic State has been steadily losing territory for over a year now, and they’re on the brink of losing control over the two most important cities in their self-proclaimed caliphate: Mosul and Raqqa. This could be a death blow to the Islamic State’s territorial claims, although the group itself will probably survive as a stateless international terrorist organization (much like Al Qaeda).
This war is both complicated and slow, which are two reasons why Americans haven’t been paying much attention to it lately. Military alliances shift as you cross the Syrian/Iraqi border, and Syria is engaged in its own multiyear civil war, of which the fight against the Islamic State is but one part. Complexities abound, which isn’t really that surprising for a conflict in the Middle East.
Putting most of those complexities aside, though, when you focus solely on the Islamic State, it’s pretty obvious that they’re losing, and losing badly. By the end of the year (at the latest), the Islamic State could lose control of all the territory in Iraq they once held. The situation in Syria is much harder to predict, but even there the Islamic State’s footprint is definitely shrinking.
While breaking down the progress made so far, it is helpful to refer to three maps. The first map was published in the Washington Post at the real turning point of the struggle to stop the Islamic State’s advance and turn it into a retreat. This was published in February of 2015, when Kurdish fighters took control of a section of major roadway in northern Iraq, which heads from Mosul into the Islamic State’s Syrian territory. Together with the successful defense of Kobani, a town on the border between Syria and Turkey, this halted the advancing Islamic State blitzkrieg and began the offensive to retake all the territory they had grabbed. The map is useful now to show the maximum extent of the Islamic State’s control. In Syria, they controlled a large stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border, allowing a pipeline for foreign fighters to join their cause. They were threatening Aleppo, Hama, and Homs in the western part of Syria as well. In Iraq, they were closing in on Baghdad itself, only miles away from the city limits in multiple directions.
The second map to look at is the Wikipedia tracking map which shows the current state of the war. In Syria, the government forces (Assad’s troops) are marked in red, Turkish forces in green, Kurds in yellow, and rebel forces in light green. Islamic State territory is marked in black. In Iraq, Kurds are still marked in yellow and the Islamic State is still black, but the red dots are the Iraqi government forces and the Iranian militias. The third map is an inset of the second, which shows the current state of the battle for Mosul. As you can see, the noose is tightening on the remaining Islamic State fighters there.
The liberation of Mosul has been a hard slog, but the end is now in sight. Estimating progress is tough in this urban fight, but it now seems that within the next few weeks (by the end of June, at the latest), Islamic State fighters will be completely evicted from the city, captured, or killed.
Mosul was always the crown jewel for the Islamic State ― the biggest city they had ever seized. Initially, the Iraqi army fled the Islamic State fighters, and beat a humiliating and disorganized retreat. This was part of the initial Islamic State tsunami which almost led to fighting within Baghdad. But since the tide began to turn, the Iraqi army forces have had an unbroken string of successes at liberating cities and towns the Islamic State once controlled.
On the large-scale Wikipedia map, you can clearly see the progress that has so far been made. From Baghdad heading west, the following have been retaken: Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, and Ramadi, as well as all the territory extending to the town of Haditha. The Islamic State still controls the border town of Qaim, and a stretch of the Baghdad highway.
From Baghdad heading north, the government forces have retaken Tikrit and the Baiji oil fields, and then they continued north along the highway to Mosul. The Islamic State still controls an “island” of territory around Hawija, and they still control a section south of Sinjar, against the Syrian border. On the outskirts of Mosul, the town of Tal Afar is still in Islamic State hands as well.
The fight to retake Mosul started last October (you can see on the inset map’s history list how this fight has progressed). It’s been a long, hard slog and it’s not over yet, but the end is finally in sight.
Mosul was always partially surrounded by Kurdish-held territory, as the Kurds prevented the Islamic State from advancing all the way to Irbil. Mosul was bordered to the east, north, and northwest by Kurdish territory. Kurds also began to retake territory before the fight for Mosul was launched, by retaking Sinjar and the major road from Mosul into Syria (including retaking the border crossing itself). But the Kurds halted this advance and never pushed very far south of the road or retook the town of Tal Afar from the Islamic State.
This set the stage for the battle for Mosul. Government and militia forces pushed up from the south, retaking town after town on the main Mosul-Baghdad route. They took the key Qayyarah airfield that allowed for air support during the urban fighting ahead. Then they began the push for Mosul itself, from the east and south.
It took months, but eventually this succeeded in taking all the land on the east bank of the Tigris River. The advance then pushed north of the city and retook all territory on that side of the river all the way up to the Kurdish lines.
While this was going on, the Iranian militias (for the most part) threw a cordon around the city’s outlying towns to the south and west. They made it all the way to the road to Sinjar, and by doing so totally cut off the Islamic State forces within Mosul itself. The noose had been drawn, and it now would tighten. The militia forces still haven’t advanced to Tal Afar, and are instead appear to be waiting for the final fall of Mosul.
The west bank of the Tigris contained the old city, with narrow streets that armored vehicles cannot navigate. This will likely be where the Islamic State forces make their final stand (marked on the inset map as the Prophet Zarzis district of the city). The Iraqi forces pushed up from the south and then worked their way around the outskirts in a clockwise fashion, also leaving the old city for the final fight.
They have almost completed this work. Eventually they’ll retake everything but the city center, all the way to the banks of the Tigris. The final siege of the old city may take longer than expected, as the Iraqi forces are trying to avoid as many civilian casualties as they can (after an airstrike that killed many civilians was condemned in the worldwide media). The street-by-street urban warfare will be most intense at the end, in the narrow alleys of the city center.
But although it’s been excruciatingly slow, the Iraqi forces have so far won ground consistently, without a major setback. The Islamic State has been on a losing streak in Iraq for over a year. This will be celebrated when Mosul finally is completely liberated, no doubt.
Syria is much more complicated, obviously, since there are so many warring factions it is hard to keep them all straight. This makes it hard to see which Islamic State areas are likely to be retaken by which armies, among other things.
In Syria, the Islamic State has also been losing ground in a major way since their high-water mark. In the north of Syria, the Kurds have been the most successful at resisting and turning back the Islamic State tide. Kurdish fighters have successfully retaken an impressive stretch of the Turkish border, and were only halted in their westward march when Turkey sent troops to deny them any further territory (Turkey considers all the Kurdish fighters to be terrorists, one of the major complications for the United States). The Kurds retook all the borderlands up to Manbij and are now pushing southward towards Raqqa.
Assad’s forces have been having more mixed success at retaking Islamic State ground. The government forces have had to retake Palmyra twice now, after they lost control when the Islamic State counterattacked. But, to date, this has been the only victory the Islamic State has managed since the tide turned on them over a year ago. And even this wasn’t ultimately successful, when Assad’s troops retook the city a second time.
The battle for Raqqa is imminent, however, and it will be the biggest psychological defeat for the Islamic State yet. The city was proclaimed the capital of the new caliphate, so losing it is going to be a propaganda blow against the Islamic State’s claims to glory. Coming almost simultaneously with the defeat in Mosul, losing Raqqa will be a one-two punch that (hopefully) the Islamic State will never recover from.
The Kurds have pushed into the outskirts of Raqqa from the north and from the northwest. In preparation for this fight, they have retaken the road heading east from Raqqa, on the north bank of the Euphrates River. They’ve pushed down the routes from the north, and are now reportedly only a few miles from the city limits. With American help, Kurdish fighters were airlifted in to the area around Tabqa (and the dam nearby), and have now cut off a supply line to Raqqa’s west.
This hasn’t completely circled Raqqa, but a Mosul-style complete siege probably won’t be necessary (Raqqa is smaller than Mosul, for one). Especially considering that last week the U.S. announced it would be sending heavy arms to the Kurdish forces for the fight for Raqqa (Turkey’s not happy about this, but it was always pretty obvious geographically that the Kurds would be the only logical force to take Raqqa).
It’s anyone’s guess how soon the battle for the city actually begins in earnest. The Kurds may wait and continue retaking surrounding towns and territory, or they may elect to just push on into Raqqa within the next few weeks. It also remains to be seen how long it’ll take to defeat the Islamic State fighters and retake the whole city.
But at this point it’s a pretty safe bet that the Islamic State will indeed be defeated and their hold on Raqqa will end. They’ll likely fight hard to keep it because of the symbolism of losing their self-proclaimed capital, but they’ve been on such a long losing streak that it doesn’t seem possible they’re going to be successful in defending Raqqa.
If the Islamic State loses both Mosul and Raqqa within a fairly short period of time, it could be the end of their dreams of controlling a territory they call a “caliphate.” It probably won’t be the end of the Islamic State group, but it will be at least the beginning of the end of their reign of terror over major portions of Iraq and Syria.
This is not to say there won’t be further battles to win to completely wrest control of territory currently under Islamic State control. In both Iraq and Syria, there will still be pockets to be cleaned up. This will probably be accomplished in Iraq first.
There will still be four remaining areas of Iraq that will need reconquering, even after Mosul falls. Tal Afar will likely be the first of these to be retaken, as part of the mopping-up of the Mosul operation. There are indications that the militias will also clean out the area south of Sinjar as part of this mopping-up as well. If true, this will leave only two chunks of territory left to reclaim: the area surrounding Hawija, and the border area around Qaim. These will require major offensives, but nothing like the scale of the battle for Mosul. Which is why it is now conceivable that all of these objectives could be completed by the end of this year, denying the Islamic State any remaining foothold within Iraq.
In Syria, the biggest problem is going to be how far the Kurds are willing to push south. Kurds are more interested in fighting for their historic lands, and the remnants of the Islamic State are going to flee far beyond these areas. So at some point the Kurdish fighters may voluntarily decide they’ve gone far enough, and hunker down to defend the territory they’ve taken.
This will most likely leave it up to the Syrian government forces to finish the job, and Assad’s troops are in the midst of fighting other forces than just the Islamic State. So it remains to be seen whether the government forces have the resources (or the will) to completely finish off the last pockets of the Islamic State. Even if they did sweep all towns held by the Islamic State clean, it’s doubtful these areas wouldn’t be vulnerable to be retaken when Assad is busy with other battles. So while it looks like the future of the Islamic State in Iraq is about to be ended, they may be able to tenaciously cling to the lands around the town of Deir Ez-Zor and the border towns across from Qaim in Iraq, as well as some other isolated pockets of territory in western Syria.
So it is too soon to say the complete defeat and eradication of the Islamic State is close to being at hand. This won’t lessen their upcoming defeats in Mosul and Raqqa, though. The Islamic State was built on the concept of blitzkrieg warfare ― advance so swiftly that your opponent flees in complete disorganization. But this plan only works as long as your forces are advancing. Propaganda victories draw in thousands of foreign fighters only when it looks like you’ve got a real chance of winning. When it is obvious to the world you are constantly losing ground, nobody’s going to want to commit to your cause. This is why the defeat of the Islamic State in both Mosul and Raqqa are so important. Psychologically, it should break the back of the Islamic State’s grandiose claims.
Of course, even should the Islamic State be completely eradicated from both Iraq and Syria, that doesn’t mean everything will be rosy in either country. To achieve this victory, the Iraqi government allowed Iranian militias to fight the Islamic State, and they’ve been guilty of so many atrocities in the towns they’ve taken control of that Iraq could move straight from the war with the Islamic State to a period of civil war. The possibility definitely exists. As for Syria, even if the Islamic State were completely removed from the board, there will still be a multi-army civil war raging, which doesn’t seem to have any end in sight.
While all of that is important and concerning, the main objective of the United States military in the region has been defeating and destroying the Islamic State. This has been an overwhelming success, although it has been moving at too slow a pace for most Americans to pay attention. Under both Presidents Obama and Trump, the war plan has not appreciably been different. It has allowed not only for successes against the Islamic State but has also mostly avoided any American troop casualties, since it has relied on airstrikes and advising existing fighters on the ground rather than sending in American frontline ground troops.
All of this is about to be highlighted, in the next few weeks. The media loves big war stories rather than ongoing strategic analyses, and they’re about to have two big war victories to focus on. Retaking both Mosul and Raqqa from the Islamic State is going to be a heavy one-two punch that may serve as the biggest psychological defeat they’ve ever suffered ― one that largely ends the draw for foreign fighters to join them altogether. That would represent a major turning point in the battle against the Islamic State ― both for the military fight and for the “hearts and minds” effort as well.
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