The Crumbling of ISIS

Officially, the Iraqi government is still dampening expectations of an early victory in Mosul. But the news on the ground tells a different story.

  • General Stephen Townsend, commanding the US “assistance” mission, last week: ISIS is down to 2,000 fighters in Mosul, including those now isolated in Tal Afar.
  • Iraqi Federal police, 28 February:  since the start of the offensive on the West bank of the Tigris in Mosul, 900 ISIS fighters have been killed.
  • Unconfirmed local Iraqi report: 20 ISIS checkpoints in the semi-desert West of Mosul have been abandoned.
  • The Iraqi Army recaptured the large airport and the adjoining military base in about two days. In the earlier offensive on the East bank, ISIS held out in smaller districts for a week, and then counter-attacked with infiltrators.

It’s speeding up. In the time since I started writing this, the Iraqi Army has captured the west end of a second bridge over the Tigris, at the SE corner of the old city, and claims to have recaptured 60% of the whole of the west bank of the city.

It’s just possible that the weak resistance is part of a cunning plan to lure the Iraqi army into a costly house-to-house battle in the narrow streets of the old city. I don’t buy this. Fanatics don’t do tactical retreats. They are surrounded, low on ammunition, taking very heavy casualties, in a hostile population controlled by terror that will betray them at the first safe opportunity, and facing certain defeat. For Syrian and Iraqi ISIS fighters, melting into the civilian population only offers a slim chance of survival. For the foreigners, even that is nonexistent. They are stuck, like the French and Belgian SS soldiers who fought to the last in the centre of Berlin in May 1945 (source: Beevor). My guess is that they will be overrun in the next ten days.

Over the Syrian border, the Kurdish YPG militia (associated with Ocalan’s PKK and vehemently opposed by Turkey) has surrounded Raqqa on three sides, and cut the last road east on the north bank to Deir ez-Zor. The south is open, but the bridges over the Euphrates have been cut by bombing and the only crossing is by boat. There are unconfirmed reports that ISIS leaders have been evacuating their families from Raqqa into the countryside. That leaves ISIS holding three centres, cut off from each other, two under close siege.

The self-proclaimed caliphate will be gone in a few months. It may survive as a non-territorial conspiracy, a low-budget and even more extreme rival to al-Qaeda. But they don’t have the latter’s funding, organization, or experience. The attraction of ISIS to alienated young radical Muslim men across the world depended crucially on the caliphate claim, not just to statehood but empire. This absolutely required control of territory. I would not put it past them to pull a Jonestown rather than submit to shameful surrender. Not many of their enemies will be ready to leave them alive.

The end of the fake caliphate will be a victory for Obama’s proxy strategy, though Trump will surely claim it. In retrospect, it was bound to fail. A claim to universal dominion exercised by forced conversion, enslavement, and massacre of everybody in its reach cannot possibly work. The original expansion of Islam depended on the new religion’s exceptional tolerance for non-Muslim peoples of the book. The large numbers of converts from their new subjects were actually a problem to the Arab conquerors, and led to the Abbasid revolution. This contemporary bunch of millenarian crazies will leave nothing but an execrated memory.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]