The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is palpably down in its bastion, but not out in the wider geographical canvas. Tuesday’s momentous development is doubtless a symbolic loss that the terrorist group has suffered a little over three years after its emergence (September 2014).
The Syrian city of Raqqa, which was once the de facto capital of the Caliphate, has fallen to US-backed forces, signalling ~ at any rate for now ~ the end of a gruelling four-month battle. With the recapture of Raqqa, the three years of ISIS rule in a swathe of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria has met its eclipse.
And well might Donald Trump claim that his forces have achieved what Vladimir Putin’s bombardment from the skies couldn’t. ISIS is under intense pressure both in Syria and Iraq, and the potentially forbidding Caliphate has been restricted to a strip of the Euphrates Valley and the desert between the two countries. Yet there ought to be no scope for complacence; a seemingly crippling blow to ISIS in one part of the world can provoke renewed depredations further afield, most particularly in Europe and Afghanistan.
That said, both the big powers ~ yesterday’s Cold War warriors but today’s friends of strategic convenience ~ must realise that while the ISIS has been brought to its knees in Syria, the repressive dictator bashes on regardless at the presidential palace in Damascus. Though the liberation of Raqqa ~ often referred to as the ISIS “capital of cruelty” ~ will be formally announced very shortly, the military operations have ended with the capture of the city’s stadium and hospital, the last holdouts of the terrorist group.
The Islamic State’s presence has very nearly been eliminated. The liberation of Raqqa has been an emblematic loss for ISIS not least because its recapture has trashed its claim of ruling an Islamic state… at least physically. But the contours are less than clear and amidst the jubilant celebrations on Tuesday evening, it wasn’t quite clear as to who will now control the city. If eventually the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) assume control of governance, fears of a renewed bout of ethnic tension between the local residents of Raqqa ~ who are Arabs in the main ~ and the predominantly Kurdish SDF are not wholly unfounded.
The SDF has in the recent past handed over areas it had taken from ISIS to the Syrian army. A repetition of this handover could lead to a fresh wave of clashes. Ethnicity can be as forbidding as Islamist fundamentalism.
To that can be added the Assad factor; neither the US nor Russia nor the United Nations have had the nerve to address the issue fair and square. Much as the ISIS presence has ended, stability in Syria has been a scarce commodity since the spring of 2011.