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The operation to clear the Islamic State (IS) from its Iraqi capital, Mosul, began on 17 October and is now 188 days old. IS was announced cleared from east Mosul on 25 January, and the offensive that began on 19 February to clear the more densely-populated and difficult west Mosul has ostensibly swept IS from sixty percent of that area. Official sources claim IS now controls less than seven percent of Iraqi territory, down from forty percent in 2014. But yesterday, a car bomb struck Zuhur, the first attack of this kind in east Mosul since February, murdering at least four people. This is part of a pattern of attacks that suggests the Mosul operation itself was rushed and more importantly that IS is already recovering in liberated areas.
OUT BUT NOT DOWN
When the Mosul offensive began, there was reason to worry that the timing was more political than it was determined by facts on the ground. Towns like Qayyara and Shirqat, which had been formally cleared of jihadists and were being used as launchpads for the assault on Mosul, were under constant harassment from the rural surroundings. More important is Hawija, which IS continues to hold.
Hawija, a town of about 200,000 people, fell to IS on 16 June 2014, after Mosul collapsed on 10 June and IS swept across northern and central Iraq. Located one-hundred miles south-east of Mosul, and roughly equidistant—forty miles or so—east of Shirqat and west of Kirkuk, with Bayji and Tikrit within sixty miles to the south, Hawija sits in a prime location to cause mayhem behind the lines, and has done so. IS is able to organize attacks from Hawija, and then fall back to safe-haven in the city. Days into the Mosul operation, IS executed a major raid in Kirkuk that killed dozens of people; the jihadists that did not blow themselves up slipped back into Hawija. This has happened despite the Kurdish Peshmerga having imposed a siege last August and blocked the four city gates.
In simple military terms, Hawija should have been cleared before Mosul, and now there are new worries. The recent announcement, which might well prove untrue, that IS’s occupation of Hawija, an overwhelmingly Sunni Arab town, will soon be brought to an end by al-Hashd al-Shabi, the conglomeration of Shi’i militias where Iranian proxies are the backbone, and the Kurdish Peshmerga, would continue one of the worst aspects of the campaign against IS, namely the use of demographically inappropriate forces to cleanse local areas that has meant IS’s military losses are not political losses.
Further to the east in Iraq, on the provincial boundary line between Saladin and Diyala, there is even more trouble as documented in an important recent report by Niqash. IS’s strategic depth is in the rural areas where it rode out defeat after 2008, a lesson it has taken into its foreign wilayats like Libya. The Jalam desert to the east Samarra—abutted by the Hamrin mountains to the north that stretch east into Diyala and west to the Tigris in Ninawa—with ad-Dawr to the south-east of Tikrit is a near-perfect location for IS. It was from the Jalam desert that IS invaded into Samarra in June 2014.
“The difficult terrain and long stretches of unpopulated land that straddle several provinces make this territory excellent for hiding, or for the establishment of secret bases,” Niqash notes. “[T]he IS fighters who are locals know the caves and valleys well and they know it would be very difficult to hunt them down here, if not impossible.” From these bases, IS have already managed to cut the road between Tikrit, the administrative centre of Saladin Province, and Kirkuk City. The area between Hawija and Kirkuk is known as the “death strip”. There have been many small raids, as well as some more significant ones, such as IS demolishing the police station in Albu Khado, which killed a number of people, or the attack on a police station in the village of Nayeb. To the west, there is the mountainous Makhul area, north of Bayji, where IS attacks at will, and the Iraqis are well aware that IS cells are spread all throughout Saladin and Diyala.
One special problem the Iraqis are having is Mutaibij, a remote village about twenty miles east of Duluiyah near the Udhaim River in the Euphrates River Valley. Mutaibij was occupied by Albu Issa tribesmen, who were opposed to IS, and now the village is abandoned. Despite four sweeps, however, the Iraqi Security Forces can never capture or kill any IS members when they move in. It has “become a mysterious place,” says local policeman Ziyad Khalaf. “Every time we raid that village, we don’t find anybody there. Then a few hours later, we are attacked again and we lose men.”
In the west of Iraq, along the Euphrates River Valley, where Anbar Province borders Syria’s Deir Ezzor Province, an IS-held zone the group calls Wilayat al-Furat (Euphrates Province), the terror group now has its centre of gravity. As Raqqa comes under pressure, IS has moved the bulk of its administration to Mayadeen in eastern Syria, seventy miles up-river from al-Qaim, long a main gateway for IS jihadists flowing into Iraq from Syria. “We are always under threat from the Islamic State group,” says an Iraqi border guard. “The danger doesn’t end when we arrive at our barracks. … [W]e are continuously losing men to the IS attacks. There are not enough soldiers or weapons to confront an enemy like this. They know that we are weak and they know the government is negligent.” Unlike the areas mentioned above, this desert wilderness has not yet even been nominally cleared and it remains to be seen if it can be. Until then, IS is able to use this base to strike at areas that have been cleared, like Rutba and Heet and devastated cities like Fallujah and Ramadi, with bombings and assassinations.
HISTORY AS A GUIDE TO THE FUTURE
In 2007-08, IS had been politically isolated and militarily driven from its cities by the Surge and Sahwa. Throughout 2010, the organization’s leadership structure was nearly destroyed. Yet in 2011, the IS movement was into a recovery—so much so it dispatched operatives into Syria to form a secret branch. By 2013, even as it underwent a schism with its Syrian wing, IS had nearly eliminated the Sahwa and launched a campaign of terrorism, particularly against the prisons, that freed important operatives, and seriously destabilized the Iraqi government. The heavy-handed reaction of the government, and its increased reliance on Iran, only fed IS. How had IS recovered in just five years?
Western inattentiveness was certainly part of it: the belief the Surge was a done deal rather than a process to be maintained. The political disengagement after 2009 allowed the worst, most sectarian and authoritarian instincts of the Iraqi Prime Minister free rein, polarizing the Sunni community, and IS reaped the benefits of that. IS did also realize it had made mistakes; it reassessed some tactics, especially in dealing with the tribes, though maintained remarkable continuity in ideology.
Still, the major part of the answer to IS’s resilience lies, as Craig Whiteside has written, in its deeply bureaucratic structure and strategic outlook that gives it the ability to wage a Mao-style revolutionary warfare. IS has proven capable of moving through the three stages: an infiltration and building stage by terror and inducement; expansion with terrorist and insurgent tactics; and then into the decisive phase of governance and state administration. Just as importantly, IS can move back through the stages when necessary.
This means IS’s loss of territory should not be seen as the sole measure of how this war is going. What is needed in a revolutionary war is legitimacy over the long-term; if military defeats contain political victories, they can be absorbed, which is why IS has chosen simply to retreat in most areas before the attacks on its capitals. Fallujah was a classic case: IS held about two-thirds of the city; after evidence of atrocities by the Shi’a militias appeared, giving IS a political win, it pulled out within five days. The U.S.’s narrow focus on defeating IS, with the mistaken emphasis on when IS is defeated rather than how, has meant supporting Iranian-run Shi’a militias in Iraq and the PKK in Syria, playing into IS’s hands, legitimizing the group even as it loses territory, and assisting IS becoming a global movement that can mobilize its supporters abroad for external attacks.
The holding of a specific territory has never been the basis of IS’s legitimacy. Over the last year, IS has crystallized this view that the caliphate is more a cause than a destination, presenting the impending loss of its twin capitals, Mosul and Raqqa, as merely one stage in a cycle, part of the travails of the believers—a gift from god, indeed—to purify the herd before final victory. After inflicting terrible losses on the infidels, the jihadists will “retreat into the desert” temporarily, as they did last time only with hideouts stretching into Syria this time as well, and come back stronger, IS says. Given the conditions—no major U.S. troop presence on the ground; massive destruction, displacement, and persecution in the Sunni areas; heightened sectarianism; dysfunctional political systems all across the Fertile Crescent—IS’s belief that trends are on its side even more than in 2008 cannot be dismissed as self-serving delusion. In some areas those trends toward IS’s recovery are already becoming a reality.
Correction: post originally misstated the population of Hawija