Within days, the Iraqi city of Mosul will be declared completely liberated from the Islamic State. Within weeks (a few months, at most), the battle for Raqqa in Syria will also be over, driving the Islamic State from their biggest strongholds within their self-proclaimed caliphate. Much will be made of these two victories on American television, no doubt. Both victories were long-planned and hard-fought, so the celebrations will indeed be well-earned. Today it was reported that the celebrations in Mosul have already begun. But the fall of Mosul and Raqqa mean that the fight against the Islamic State will have truly entered its end stage, in both Iraq and Syria. What Americans should be asking during this period is what are we going to do after the Islamic State becomes truly stateless? A military and diplomatic strategy needs to be in place when this happens, and so far few in Washington seem to want to address it.
While the fight against the Islamic State continues to rage, America has by default measured the contest in pretty binary terms: the Islamic State is our enemy, therefore any enemy of our enemy is our friend (for the moment). But without a common enemy, we’re going to have to be ready to address what happens next, because while Americans would doubtlessly be happy to just stop fighting and head for home, the other forces in the region do not have such singleminded goals.
Before we get to the strategic choices America will face, though, a quick rundown is necessary of what remains to be done in both countries before the Islamic State can truly be said to be routed. As always, please refer to this Wikipedia conflict map, which shows the current status of forces of all the combatants, in great detail.
Mosul is on the brink of falling. But after the last Islamic State fighter in Mosul is killed and after the celebrations have ended, there is still work left to be done before the conquering forces can be deployed elsewhere. A sweep to mop up the last redoubts of the Islamic State will need to push westward through all villages still under the Islamic State’s control until it liberates Tal Afar. This will be the culmination of two previous efforts to push back against the Islamic State territory west of Mosul ― the first from the Kurds who retook Sinjar and the border crossing with Syria, and the second which was more recent (it took place during the battle for Mosul), where government forces cleared out all the villages south of Sinjar, all the way to the border.
Taking back Tal Afar will eradicate the Islamic State from all of northern Iraq, essentially. Once this is done, there will be two big remaining military objectives. There is still an “island” of the Islamic State around the city of Hawija, in the northeast of the country (west of Kirkuk). This was bypassed as the government forces advanced northward from Baghdad to Mosul, but once Mosul falls the army will doubtlessly begin clearing this last remaining Iraqi city and the villages surrounding it.
The final objective will be the road reaching north to the Syrian border from Haditha, along the road to the northwest from Baghdad. The final push to Al Qa’im and the Syrian border will the Islamic State’s last stand in terms of holding any meaningful territory in Iraq. There will still be mopping up to take care of in the desert hinterlands to the north and south of this road, but this will be the Islamic State’s final battle to hold any towns in Iraq.
Syria is more complicated, mostly because there are more armies on the scene, and they’re all busy fighting each other as well as fighting the Islamic State.
There are two small areas still under Islamic State control in the west of Syria ― one tiny one where the Syrian, Israeli, and Jordanian borders meet (the area of the new ceasefire), and a bigger concentration to the east of Hama and Homs. These may be the toughest to kick the Islamic State out of, because there are other battles happening in both areas, which divides the forces against them.
As in Iraq, the main territory under Islamic State control has been steadily shrinking. This has mostly been due to the Kurdish forces (aided by American air power) in the north, although recently the Assad forces have been making gains as well (the fight for Palmyra and what’s been happening after the fall of Aleppo, which freed up the government forces to push eastward).
Once Raqqa falls, which should happen in the next few months, at the latest, the Islamic State will be reduced in Syria to a “Y” of roads in the eastern part of the country, with the city of Deir ez-Zor roughly at its center. The Kurds began successfully pushing back against the Islamic State on the northeastern leg of this Y long ago, when they retook the border crossing on the road heading to Sinjar and Mosul and pushed a little further south on the road on the Syrian side of the border. At some point, the Kurds halted their advance, and this battleline has not moved since. Assumably, the two sides are dug in while their efforts are focused elsewhere.
The southern leg of the Y ends at the border crossing into Iraq and the Syrian town of Abu Kamal. The Islamic State still has a buffer zone in Iraq on this route, until the Iraqi forces push north to the border.
The northwestern leg of this Y is where the recent fighting has been. Islamic State territory in this direction used to not only reach all the way to the border with Turkey, but contained a long stretch of that border (on the Syrian side) as well. But in the past few years, they have steadily been rolled back, no matter which forces were doing the fighting (as you can tell from the map, there are several armies that have been slugging it out here). The final push began from the north, as the Kurdish fighters first surrounded and then attacked Raqqa, the self-proclaimed “capital of the caliphate.” Along the remaining Islamic State territory (the last leg of the Y), the Kurds surrounded Raqqa on the north side of the Euphrates River and then pushed miles beyond the city, heading eastward. They retook the entire north bank of the river, but eventually halted their advance.
The Kurds were then airlifted in across a huge reservoir (Lake Assad, behind the Tabqa Dam) and swiftly retook the dam and the town of Tabqa. They then began marching towards Raqqa, retaking territory on the southern bank of the river. This effort continues, even while the fight for Raqqa is going on, and will assumably match the territory taken by the Kurds on the northern bank. At this point, though, the Kurds will likely stop their advance.
As this push was happening, the Assad forces began clearing out the Islamic State from Aleppo heading south and east. They have fairly swiftly retaken all territory not already liberated by the Kurds around Tabqa. This is where a Syrian plane was shot down, but Russia and America have now agreed to a line dividing the forces which has since held firm. The heart of this bargain was that the Kurds would be the ones to retake Raqqa, while the Assad forces would bypass it and head towards Deir ez-Zor. At some point, they may join up with a push from the Assad forces heading north from Palmyra, before the final push to Deir ez-Zor.
Some experts have predicted that Abu Kamal will be the final stand for the Islamic State, as it is rumored to be where the Islamic State leaders have fled to, from both Raqqa and Mosul. So the real end of the fight might happen at the Syrian/Iraqi border.
While all of that sounds complicated, in reality it is the simplified version. Saying “Assad’s forces” or the “Iraqi governmental forces” doesn’t differentiate among what groups comprise those forces. On the map, both are shown in red. But in both cases, this doesn’t address the difference between members of the official Iraqi and Syrian militaries and militias who are fighting alongside them. Also in both cases, these militias have ties to Iran. What this means is that on one side of the border, American forces are essentially fighting alongside Iranian-backed forces, while on the other side, we’re fighting against them. Even this is an oversimplification, however.
The remaining fight to deny the Islamic State any territorial claims whatsoever in Iraq and Syria is still going to take awhile, of course. But put all of that aside, and assume that all of the above takes place at some point in the not-too-distant future. Iraq eradicates the Islamic State from all its villages and cities, and retakes all territory once held by them. In Syria, the Kurds and Assad’s forces retake not only Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor but also that whole Y-shaped crossroads. What happens next? What should the United States do then?
People are already getting worried about Iran’s influence on who holds what territory after the Islamic State battles have all been won. It is said that they are trying to construct a “land bridge” (or a “Shi’ite crescent”) between Iran and Lebanon, so they’ll have easy access to Hezbollah and a complete path to the Mediterranean Sea. This would require them to hold a large chunk of Iraq and a larger chunk of Syria. Iranian-backed militias are reportedly trying to move in to Abu Kamal and the surrounding region before any of the other forces can get there. If the Iranians wind up controlling most of that Y when the dust settles, then they’ll be in a much stronger regional position.
In Iraq, politics will figure heavily on what happens after the Islamic State is eradicated. There are multiple possibilities for how this might all play out. In the first place, the Iraqi Kurds are reportedly considering (once again) claiming their total independence from Iraq. It might be the best time to do so, when the country is in such chaos after a protracted war. But this is very likely to cause an immediate reaction from not just Iraq but also Iran and Turkey (who both have their own Kurdish populations who have long dreamed of joining a new Kurdish state). If the Iraqi Kurds do choose this route, they might face the same mix of Iraqi national forces and Iranian-backed militias who ― having nothing else to do after eradicating the Islamic State ― began attacking the Kurds in force.
What, at this point, will America do? We’ve backed both the Kurds and the Iraqi government in the fight against the Islamic State, but in the past we have abandoned the Kurds on numerous occasions when backing them would have been too complicated. Will we do so again? Will we refuse to recognize Kurdistan, and look the other way while the government forces and/or the militias crack down?
Even if the Kurds decide not to take the statehood route, there is still a simmering political divide between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq. If the government neglects the Sunnis yet again (and keeps them out of both the government and the armed forces), then what will inevitably happen is the resentment will simmer in the hinterlands until the next iteration of extremists coalesces. This has already happened at least three separate times, with the initial Sunni Triangle insurgency, the rise of Al Qaeda in the country, and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State. If the political sectarian problems are not adequately addressed, we could see the start of this cycle within a few years’ time. The extremists will fade into the desert and the general population, regroup, and rise again under a different name.
Of course, all this might be too pessimistic. Perhaps the Iraqi government has learned the lesson of what happened under Maliki’s rule, and perhaps Shi’ites can come to some power-sharing agreement which truly respects the Sunni population. But if this doesn’t happen, the United States should be prepared to deal with it in one way or another, because the alternative is to just let it happen all over again. This problem might even be an easier one than if the Kurds declared their own state, but it still will require some forethought as to where American interests truly lie.
In Syria the problems are even more complicated. If the Kurds retake Raqqa and the rest of the Islamic State territory falls to Assad’s forces (or Iranian militias), then America’s main objective in the struggle will have been met. We’ve moved steadily away from demanding Assad’s ouster, in order to focus in on the fight against the Islamic State. But once that fight is over, what are we going to do? It will be at this point we will be required to make a commitment in Syria beyond just removing the Islamic State. Will we keep arming rebels and the Kurds? Will we continue to offer air support for the groups we approve of? Will we continue to have American forces aiding these groups? The sticky problem with this scenario is Russia, of course.
If Russia continues to back Assad and we continue backing the rebels, then once the Islamic State is defeated it would become nothing short of a proxy war between two superpowers. It would hearken back to the days of the U.S. in Vietnam and Korea, and Russia in Afghanistan. Will we insist on Assad’s removal from power as our end goal? Or at some point will American decide to cut and run? How hard will we push back if Iran attempts a de facto land grab? Will Russian and American aircraft continue to avoid each other, by mutual agreement?
These are all very tough questions to answer. But as we enter the real endgame of the war against the Islamic State, they certainly bear thinking about. At this point, it’s easy to see how the total annihilation of the Islamic State territory will be accomplished. But it gets a lot murkier the day after that is achieved. The United States needs an overall strategy for whatever happens next. What are our longterm military and political objectives in Iraq and Syria? How high a price will we be willing to pay to achieve these goals? Which of our current allies will we continue to arm and continue to back militarily? Which will become our enemies if we don’t? What happens if two of them meet on a battlefield and begin fighting each other?
Not easy questions, admittedly, but questions that really need answering before we get to that point. Because: “We’ll just wing it when we get there” is seldom the best answer, especially in the Middle East.
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