U.S backed forces have finally secured the one-time ‘capital’ of ISIS, Raqqa after five grueling months assault after the destruction of the group’s last holdouts and the surrender of several thousand fighters. The Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have reportedly cleared out the last of the fighters from the national stadium and the main hospital earlier today.
The news comes days after the SDF reported that they were making their last push in the city after they first entered it in June. Clearing operations are underway to remove any remaining landmines and uncover any jihadist sleeper cells while some SDF fighters celebrated their victory in the streets.
The loss of their capital is a crippling blow to ISIS who have suffered serious defeats in both Syria and Iraq with the fall of Raqqa following their crushing defeat in Mosul and their remaining Iraqi strongholds. Although the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and many of his followers are still at large, the loss of both their capital and Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul are dramatic reversals of fortunes for the group.
At the height of their power, they controlled an are roughly the size of Great Britain and Baghdadi declared the territory as an Islamic Caliphate. However, airstrikes from the USA and pressure from multiple fronts have chipped away at their power. With the loss of Raqqa, ISIS is severely reduced in terms of territory and manpower.
However, some remain cautious as the group’s ability to spread propaganda and encourage attacks on social media remains a major threat. ISIS has just declared that they plan to target the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Whether they will be able to follow up such a threat is unclear, but the issue of captured foreign fighters is a thorny problem.
Deprived of funding, fighters, and territory, ISIS may seek to change its tactics or decamp to some of its other strongholds in Yemen or Libya. Their ability to fund or encourage further attacks against the West is still unclear, but their extensive reach on social media is hard to ignore. Their caliphate may be gone, but their hateful ideology remains intact.
There is also concern over how to rebuild the territory and tensions between members of the anti-ISIS coalition. At the same time as Raqqa’s fall, reports came in of Iraqi army units taking over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in north-eastern Iraq. There are fears of clashes between Iraq and the Kurdish government in north-eastern Iraq who held the city after the Kurdish forces defeated ISIS. Long-standing tensions between Iraqis and Kurds threaten to blow up in a new major crisis-a crisis similar to the one that ISIS exploited in order to create their caliphate.
Similar tensions may also boil over in Syria, especially since the forces that retook Raqqa are mostly comprised of Syrian-Kurdish forces. The Syrian regime, supported by Russia, has also made gains against ISIS on its border with Iraq but many commentators fear that once ISIS is defeated, the anti-ISIS coalition may fall into infighting and even spark a civil war.
The legacy of the war against ISIS is also grim. Historical monuments at Palmyra, Mosul, and Raqqa have been damaged beyond repair or destroyed while thousands of people have been killed, wounded, or displaced. Many settlements lie in ruins and reconstruction efforts are likely to take months, even years. The memory of the brutal tactics and oppression by ISIS will be hard to erase and sectarian tensions or regional disputes will make the government’s job harder.
Future campaigns, focussing on the borderlands between Syria and Iraq, will take many more months and will provide a perfect hiding place for jihadists to hie along with the leadership of ISIS. Despite the string of successes, the remaining strongholds of ISIS are in remote desert regions with valleys, hills, and mountains to hide in. Despite their dwindling numbers, ISIS fighters are still able to stage deadly hit-and-run attacks.
For now, though, the world can breathe a sigh of relief at the capture of Raqqa and can rest a little easier, knowing that ISIS has, at least by conventional standards, been defeated. Once a force that numbered hundreds of thousands controlling vast swathes of territory, ISIS is now thoroughly diminished and beaten.
Three years ago, Raqqa saw triumphant military parades of ISIS soldiers, following a string of victories during the Syrian Civil War and saw their rise into a major threat. Now, it is a symbol of their changing fortunes and a sign of just how far the group has fallen. While its ideology is not dead and the threat of its attacks are still present, the terrorist group are certainly crippled.
Now, with the war won, Syria, Iraq and the Kurdish forces must win the peace.