What might the defeat of Islamic State look like?

15 June 2016

When IS fighters, who have put up a very stiff resistance so far, are finally forced to retreat towards Mosul, the Iraqi government and its supporters will celebrate. But such a celebration will be hollow.

As battles for Fallujah and Raqqa rage, it would seem that Islamic State will not be able to hold on to these two cities for much longer. An array of opposition forces has now surrounded the two cities. Their fall will inflict a shattering blow on IS and could also mark the beginning of IS's eventual eviction from two other major Iraqi and Syrian cities, Mosul and Aleppo. What might victory for the Iraqi and Syrian governments, as well as their external supporters, and defeat for IS, look like?

The Iraqi government's Fallujah campaign is backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its affiliated Iraqi Shiite militia, the Western-supported Kurdish Peshmerga force, and American and allied intense bombardments from the air. Strangely enough, the Americans and Iranians are fighting on the same side. While more than 50,000 of Fallujah's predominantly Sunni population are still trapped in the city, both the civilian casualties and physical destruction have already been extremely high.

When IS fighters, who have put up a very stiff resistance so far, are finally forced to retreat towards Mosul, the Iraqi government and its supporters will celebrate. But such a celebration will be hollow. They will inherit a city totally destroyed, with its population in awe and resentful of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and its Shiite militias. There are already reports of Shiite militias torturing and taking revenge on Fallujans.

Meanwhile, it would be erroneous to assume that IS will simply melt away and that the US and its Western allies will have any more influence than Iran as the main player in Baghdad. As has been the case in the past, IS-directed or inspired suicide bombers can be expected to hit more targets across the Shiite and Kurdish territories, and beyond.

This, together with the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi being riddled with corruption, internal divisions, power struggles and dysfunctionality, and the Iraqi Kurds operating virtually independent of Baghdad, is unlikely to bring much relief to the Iraqi people. Nor is it likely to make an eviction of IS from Mosul easy. Mosul is a much bigger prize for the Iraqi government and its backers to gain and for IS to lose. The city has a population of 2 million, and IS has had nearly two years to embed its fighters and military assets among the populace and work out brutal defensive tactics.

The same goes for the ongoing operations to drive IS out of its nominal capital, Raqqa, and Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo. At present, a number of conflicting forces are in the fight to gain control of these cities. They include the Desert Hawks of Bashar al-Assad's government, backed by intense Russian air operations and Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah contingents; and the Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by the US and its allies.

It appears that Russia and the US have engaged in a degree of co-ordination against IS as the first priority for the time being. But it is also clear that they have conflicting agendas. Russia wants to save the Assad regime and deepen ties with Iran as the only country in the region whose Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his supporters continue to remain opposed to the US. President Vladimir Putin's main objective is to secure a strong foothold in the eastern Mediterranean through Russia's Tartus naval base in Syria's Latakia province, and to have Iran as an ally in a region where American influence has been on the wane.

His wider strategy is to counter NATO's opposition to Russia's annexation of Crimea and meddling in eastern Ukraine, its consequent sanctions on Russia, and its stationing of anti-ballistic missiles and a rapid deployment force in Eastern Europe on Russia's borders. Moscow may not succeed in this strategy, given its economic woes and inability to compete with the US and its allies in military expenditure, as well as Tehran's historical antipathy towards Russia. However, this is unlikely to deter Putin from pressing on with his strategy as far as he can.

As for the fall of Raqqa and Aleppo, this too will not necessarily bring peace to Syria, whose massive destruction and population losses (in terms of being killed and made refugees) cannot be underestimated. The very forces that are fighting IS as the common enemy, are completely at odds over who should be in control of the fallen cities. The next phase carries a high risk of direct conflict between the internal forces and of proxy conflict between external actors, with the surviving IS fighters engaging in guerilla warfare, as in the case of Iraq, and in direct or inspired suicidal bombing operations within a global network.

Whichever way one looks at it, the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts have gained a complexity well beyond a simple resolution to restore the pre-conflict status of the two countries. No one is likely to come out of these conflicts with a sense of victory. The only option is a political solution based on an interlocking regional and international consensus - that is between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - with the full and unconditional backing of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Yet, this does not seem to be on the horizon.

This article was first published in Fairfax Media.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.