The battle to recapture Fallujah from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has gathered momentum, with thousands of government-linked forces encircling the strategic town, supported from the air and advised on the ground by the United States-led anti-ISIL coalition.
It is worth recalling that Fallujah was the first Iraqi city to fall to ISIL (also known as ISIS) in January 2014 – a defeat that starkly reflected political failure in Iraq, more than anything else.
In the year leading up to the ISIL takeover, Anbar province was engulfed by popular demonstrations against the marginalisation and brutalisation of Sunnis.
In response, the prime minister of the time, Nouri al-Maliki, called in the armed forces and – on television – described the issue as part of an inescapable religious battle rooted in the 7th century.
This fateful decision, unsurprising given Maliki’s sectarian track record, only reaffirmed the protest’s narrative about government heavy-handedness towards Sunnis – and, crucially, it created a militarised space in which ISIL gained a momentous foothold. By the summer, its leader had announced his so-called caliphate.
Fallujah is the latest stop for government-linked security forces on their circuitous march to retake control of Mosul, Iraq’s second city and a major ISIL nerve centre.
ISIL is certainly on the strategic back foot in Iraq, and it must also contend with the prospect of imminent offensives against its regional “capitals” in Syria (Raqqa) and Libya (Sirte).
Since last autumn, setbacks for ISIL have piled up, forcing its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to theorise in an audio address that “affliction is an inevitable decree”.
|Both sides can lose. Fallujah fell to ISIL in the first place because of wider political conditions in Iraq and the region.|
Alongside a stream of territorial losses in Iraq, and some in Syria, ISIL has been pushed out of its eastern spheres of influence in Libya. According to the Pentagon, air strikes have killed 25,000 fighters, including senior leaders such as Abu Waheeb, and important Western recruiters like Neil Prakash.
Coalition air strikes have also relentlessly targeted cash storage facilities in Syria and Iraq, destroying $800m so far, as well as oil production capabilities and convoys.
At the same time, ISIL’s smuggling economy has been hard hit by a clampdown on the part of the Turkish authorities, as well as territorial losses in the border regions.
ISIL has been forced to cut wages by 50 percent, leading to low morale and a high jump in defections. Only 200 foreign fighters arrive each month, down from a rate of 1,500 a month one year ago, and as a consequence, its military training course for new recruits has been significantly truncated.
However, while ISIL may be approaching crisis point, so too is the ad hoc anti-ISIL coalition.
Political turmoil in Baghdad has twice this month culminated in the storming of the fortified Green Zone, by protesters fed up with government delays in implementing reforms.
The parliament is paralysed. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has lurched from one crisis to another, including a concerted bid by parliament to block his proposed government of technocrats – and an attempt by Maliki to oust him from power.
At the same time, the low price of oil has shone a blinding light on corruption, and left the government struggling to balance its books – just as it must ramp up spending in the war against ISIL.
This general disarray is reflected dangerously within the anti-ISIL military campaign, where deadly clashes have occurred between supposedly allied factions – most recently at Tuz Khurmato and Ramadi.
Attempts have been made to turn the page on the well-documented crimes of government-linked Shia militia, by bringing in thousands of Sunni fighters and giving them the front seat for the Fallujah assault.
However, an enduring question mark hovers over the fate of civilians in the days and weeks after liberation.
For its part, the US is notably escalating direct combat support to anti-ISIL forces, including targeting assistance, advisers at battalion level and artillery fire, yet the US State Department polling has found that nearly one third of Iraqis “believe that the US supports terrorism in general or [ISIL] specifically” (PDF).
Syrian and elsewhere
Over in Syria, there is still no consensus on how to deal with President Bashar al-Assad, whose policy of repression and its consequences are clearly among the main drivers of ISIL’s rise in Syria and renaissance in Iraq.
The ceasefire brokered in February, which enabled humanitarian access as well as prominent victories against ISIL, as at Palmyra, has all but collapsed; in fact, ISIL may seek to retake Palmyra in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Kurdish non-state actors are the main ground partners for the anti-ISIL coalition, yet, some are known to have committed grave abuses against Syrian Arabs and, in April, one unit paraded the corpses of moderate Syrian rebels in public.
These and other excesses have led to the accusation that, with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurds have created their own version of ISIL.
In Libya, at least three rival coalitions are planning anti-ISIL offensives, each with their own operations rooms. The concern is not only the lack of a coordinated campaign, but also the possibility that these clusters of actors may well clash with one another.
It is important to note, too, that ISIL is far from a spent force. The threat remains high in North Africa, with Morocco thwarting 25 ISIL plots in the past year. The latest of these occurred last week, when a Chadian national was arrested for planning to attack Western diplomatic and tourist targets.
Arrests and seizures of heavy weaponry continue in Algeria and Tunisia, and in Egypt – where ISIL’s local branch is at the fore of a fierce anti-government insurgency in northern Sinai – ISIL elements are starting to infiltrate the capital.
In Libya, which is the weapons and logistics hub for many plots in neighbouring states, ISIL remains entrenched in Sirte and controls 300km of coastline around it, and plans are clearly afoot to soon storm the oil crescent region.
Farther afield, ISIL and allied groups are continuing their slow creep into Gaza, Yemen, eastern Afghanistan, and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon such as Ain al-Helweh.
They are also fanning out to newer frontiers such as Southeast Asia – the Philippines in particular.
In any case, the war against ISIL is not a zero-sum game. ISIL’s current battlefield losses will not automatically translate into meaningful victories for the anti-ISIL coalition.
Both sides can lose. Fallujah fell to ISIL in the first place because of wider political conditions in Iraq and the region.
Urgent work must now take place on this level, in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, to ensure that any military advances against ISIL in the coming weeks will translate into lasting gains.
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