Point of No Return

ISIS: Turning the Corner or Turning Around?

November 28, 2016

In these days, as Iraqi forces backed up by the US-led coalition are trying to break the last stand of ISIS resistance in the battle for Mosul, the world will witness the laying of a milestone in the war against the cancerous terrorist state, which broke out across the lands of Iraq and Syria, to rapidly metastasize its cells worldwide.

However, as much as it would be tempting to abandon oneself to the enthusiasm following the achievement of such a major breakthrough, a more collected look at the situation reveals where we actually are in this struggle against one of the most brutal regimes in history.




 Divided We Fall





While banishing ISIS from Iraq is, at least on the surface, a big leap forward in the fight, the way that will come to be accomplished and the price payed for that accomplishment may tell us a different story. Also, the direction of future developments can be assessed from there.


For instance, the latest advancements in the fight against ISIS have come after the western air strikes were allegedly intensified. The reason for said intensification, though, was essentially as a reaction after the involvement of the Russians, who started their own air campaign on Syrian territories. There is no denying, indeed, that air attacks from western forces in the period preceding the Russian intervention were either scarce, or often directed in Syria against Syrian elements loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad, rather than ISIS troops. That is one of the reasons why ISIS gained control of vast territories in Iraq to begin with, where the opposition was essentially left for way too long solely in the hands of under-equipped local paramilitary groups and the Iraqi armed forces.


Even if there is more western involvement now, the divide with the Russian Federation has not been bridged yet, especially over the whole Syrian situation.


Indeed, Syria is the elephant in the room in this intricate military and diplomatic muddle. Arguably, it has been all along. When I mentioned the price to drive ISIS out of Mosul, I was hinting at the fact that progress has been made so fast - the beginning of the operation was announced on October 17 by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi - not only because western air strikes were intensified, but because they were intensified, but left a passage from Iraq into Syrian territories.


No longer than a month ago, ISIS leaders were reported fleeing Mosul heading to Raqqa in Syria, with their families. This circumstance was confirmed by both Maj Gen Gary Volesky of the U.S. Army, who added that essentially it is the foreign fighters who are being left behind in a last-ditch attempt at keeping control over the caliphate's stronghold. What is problematic is the legitimate suspicion that the fleeing troops were intentionally left a corridor leading to Raqqa. The Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi (People's Mobilization Forces – PMF) made open allegations that air strikes did not target ISIS convoys leaving Mosul. This is worrisome because, on one hand it can be argued that a step forward is being made in Iraq at the cost of taking one back in Syria, but also because in the past allied forces - especially Turkish ones - attacked Syrian objectives on multiple occasions.


This could lead to an escalation that would involve the United States and Russia, which has always been a concern during this crisis. Now that the American administration is about to change, there is a chance that things may ameliorate on that front, but it is quite too early to assess if elected President Trump will follow through with his program of relaxing relations with the Russian Federation.




Hide and Seek with the Serpent


Keeping an on the Syrian scenario, there is then to consider the big question on the whereabouts of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and his capture, or more likely elimination. Very much like with the late Osama bin Laden, when the West undertakes a so-called war on terror, it often tends to be too late when it finally manages to cut the head of the serpent. That assuming the serpent has not already turned into a hydra, as the alarmingly raising number of deadly terrorist attacks in Europe and America would suggest, instead. The problem is that as long as Al Baghdadi lives, and as long as he is able to find shelter on Syrian territories, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad will likely be open season for air strikes “targeting ISIS elements.”


Current information concerning the location of the self-proclaimed Caliph is all but confused, to say the least. There is no agreement in either earlier and later reports on his coordinates. As of late, when he is not reported escaping air strikes as usual, he is believed to be “probably” hiding in tunnels under Mosul and carrying a suicide bomb vest nonetheless.


However, let's keep in mind that most of the ISIS establishment allegedly left the area early on during the launch of the Mosul offensive. These two occurrences, when examined together, do appear contradictory, since it is hard to make sense of a paranoid personality as Al Baghdadi's not being at odds with the notion of lingering around a besieged city, while his commanders are leaving the danger zone relatively undisturbed.


Of course, no scenario can be ruled out completely, when assessing the situation based on incomplete information. However, if history teaches us anything, the Al Baghdadis of the world share a nonchalant propensity for sending other to being slaughtered, all the while displaying a fierce aversion for finding themselves in even the least physical danger, and thus adopting every possible countermeasure to avoid this inconvenience. This leads me to believe that information alleging that he is still in Mosul is probably contaminated, either on ISIS side to misdirect hostile researches, or even on Iraqi and U.S. side, to instill false confidence in the enemy and enticing a misstep by Al Baghdadi.


Whether or not that is the case, we are likely to find out in a few weeks. However, as someone who follows the evolution of the conflict very closely, I am not holding my breath expecting both Mosul and soon to be respectively the place and time for the chief of ISIS to finally meet his demise. To mention again historical precedents, prominent terrorist leaders such as Al-Baghdadi seem amazingly successful at this hide and seek game. It is impossible to forget how Usama Bin Laden evaded - admittedly with surprising effectiveness - the best efforts of the intelligence services of half the world at locating him for more than a decade. Then, conveniently, he was found living the good life very quietly in the backyard of the Taliban's home turf. Bizarrely, attempts at staying into hiding by disgraced political figures such as Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi are typically short-lived, instead. Possibly, that could be attributed to the fact that, by delaying the capture or assassination of an enemy leader, other geopolitical goals against other enemies can be pursued and justified on the side, often through proxy war. Or maybe, the hiding success Al Baghdadi, Bin Laden et al. enjoyed is due to the superior skills they acquired during the time they were trained by western military consultants, before turning to the dark side.


But now I am digressing.



Turning the Corner or Turning Around?


As the battle for Mosul is approaching its crucial hour, the question we are left with is: are we turning the corner in the fight against ISIS or are we turning around after all is said and done?

In other words, is this a sign of finally a serious commitment from the western world to really put an end to the horrific reign of terror of the Islamic State, which was generated and thrived also due the instability the West itself created in the area? Or is this effort all a facade to continue pursuing power politics in the region, namely by trying to undermine the Presidency of Bashar Al Assad?


These are not trivial problems. During the administration of the exiting U.S. President, I would have assumed the answer was gonna be the latter. After the result of the recent elections, I am tentatively inclined it might be the former. However, very similarly to the above question, also the toughest test for a newly elected president has always been whether to turn the corner on his predecessor or to turn around on his election promise.

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