Don’t be fooled by this defeat for Daesh

Published by The ipaper (10th July 2017)

Some Iraqi troops started celebrating the defeat of Isis in Mosul even as their colleagues closed in on the final fighters holding out beside the river Tigris. It has been an epic onslaught for these forces on the frontline, aided by coalition air strikes pounding the ancient city. It took three months to seize the softer east side, then another six months of desperate street fighting in the cramped alleys of older parts in the west. This victory is welcome, but it comes at the heaviest of costs.

The scenes of devastation are horrific, the stench of death heavy in the air. This was perfect terrain for Isis as it booby-trapped homes, built tunnels and sent suicide bombers to confront its foes. Now Iraq’s second city, once home to two million people, looks like something from an apocalyptic movie with shattered buildings and smashed-up cars. Much of the carnage came from the sky, then bulldozers ripped apart historic streets to clear space for ground attacks. Even the Great Mosque of al-Nuri was destroyed, reportedly by militants to stop rival flags fluttering from its famous tilting al-Hadba minaret.

Few people will be sad to see the fanatics forced from their Iraqi stronghold, taken with such speed by just a few hundred fighters three years ago. This was where their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance to announce the creation of his caliphate. I stood beside that same mosque on Friday, seeing the broken minaret’s stump. It was a sobering experience, surrounded by the sounds of fighting, debris of battle and misery of war. And I met a few of the displaced people whose lives have been ripped apart along with their homes.

But this is far from the end of Isis. The recapture of Mosul marks a significant stage in the struggle, ending the group’s sham of statehood. Iraqi forces will move west towards Tal Afar, where so many Yazidi women were held before sale into slavery. The walls of its Syrian stronghold in Raqaa have been breached, although there are thought to be between 5000 and 8000 militants in the city and it retains control of hundreds of villages. Some expect its last stand to be in the Deir Ezzor region, trying to exploit tensions in the proxy war between Iran and the United States.

Politicians from Baghdad to London and Washington will proclaim the crushing of the self-proclaimed caliphate as a mighty triumph over militant Islamism. Yet I was told by Kurdish intelligence sources that a big proportion of the 3,000 fighters killed in Mosul were foreign, implying that many others melted away amid local people. Already sleeper cells are launching attacks in the east of Mosul, while a new study found it has mounted almost 1,500 attacks in 16 freed cities across Iraq and Syria.

The long battle for Mosul underlined how these fanatics are led by skilled, battled-hardened military operators. Fewer than 1000 fighters were thought to be taking on the international coalition. Several of the group’s key figures – including both deputy leaders and all four members of its original security body – were senior officials in Saddam Hussein’s security network. They won support among the Sunni minority in Iraq by exploiting discontent against a corrupt and sectarian Shia leader, enabling them to seize land the size of Britain. Many members came from poor rural areas. Religion, like nationalism, can be a disconcertingly powerful political force; just look at the emergence of IS allies from Nigeria to the Philippines.

Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, is from the Shia majority but has sought to embrace Sunni Arabs. But while his nation may have oil, it also has deep economic problems and the bill for reconstruction already runs to more than £80bn. Outsiders have offered less just £1bn so far. Discontent will soon grow if contracts are stolen, work to rebuild the ruins takes time and families remain stuck in grim camps that now dot the region to house 900,000 displaced people from Mosul.

We have seen before in Iraq how insurgency can be inflamed in a post-conflict political vacuum. Meanwhile Syria remains tragically engulfed by conflict and abused by other nations jostling for regional supremacy. The Kurds in Iraq are holding a referendum on independence for their haven of stability while eying up oil-rich Kirkuk. The Turkmen are riven with rivalries. And few Yazidi will dare return to their homes after such inhumane suffering at the hands of neighbours. I will never forget one man telling me with baffled sadness how his oldest daughter was shot dead by a man he viewed as a close friend.

Driving across Nineveh, it was noticeable that militias have sprung up in this fertile, diverse region of three million people scarred by historic divisions. My Kurdish fixer would not let us stop in liberated Sunni villages for fear of kidnap or worse. ‘There are still too many people who think they will reach paradise by killing a foreigner,’ he warned. Instead we had kebabs in Hamdaniya, a key Christian town filled with burned-out homes and broken windows. It was ringed with rooftop snipers and checkpoints from a Christian force, yet still only 300 families have dared return.

So yes, the defeat of Isis in Mosul deserves celebration. But do not be fooled that this military success solves the deep problems of a tormented nation, for which we share some blame. Nor that it is anything more than one step forward in a long struggle against the medieval militants who have bought such misery to millions.

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