The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is as much of a surprise as it is to be expected. In 2003 when U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, some Al Qaeda forces, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, relocated from Afghanistan to Iraq in preparation to fight U.S. forces. The extremely violent Zarqawi was later killed in a targeted bombing in 2006. In 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over the militant group and took advantage of the vacuum left by the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 and the Syrian civil war, he quickly expanded the size of the group’s territory. Originally loyal to Al Qaeda, Baghdadi defiled orders and officially branded his group as ISIS.
ISIS’s end goal is to amass vast lands to create an empire, also known as a caliphate, led by a caliph or an Emir of the Faithful, which is what Baghdadi’s followers refer to him as. Those who do not swear an oath of allegiants to him are branded as infidels and marked for death. Such include, but are not limited to: Jews, Christians, Shi’ite Muslims (because ISIS is a Sunni Muslim group), and Al Qaeda themselves because they do not recognize Baghdadi..
In June 2014 ISIS captured one of its most important cities. Mosul, located in northern Iraq and home to 1.5 million people, fell without much as a fight as Iraqi soldiers all but threw down their weapons and took off their uniforms. This came as a shock to not only the Arab world but also to America, who had spent years training the Iraqi forces in a hope that they could defend against such an attack.
But now, two years later, the Iraqi army, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, is trying to reclaim the ISIS stronghold. Progress has done well so far. The force, which include many Kurds, have met success as they slowly take back land leading up to Mosul. Currently, they have surrounded the and have taken back outlying sections along the eastern edge of the city.
But the progress moving forward seems daunting. Intel says ISIS has placed mines along the roads, built tunnels so militants can quickly move from location to location, and rigged the cities bridges in anticipation of an attack while jihadi snipers aim at anyone who gets too close to the city. Stories have even emerged of suicidal militants driving explosive-laden vehicles toward Iraqi and Kurdish forces. One video showed a truck driving toward a Kurdish outpost. Those inside the outpost were frantically, and unsuccessfully, trying to shoot the truck down. They were saved only when a French fighter jet targeted and destroyed the truck.
As forces get closer to the city, tensions only rise on the inside. Civilians who has been tolerated before are now being executed at the hands of ISIS. Former officers and soldiers were the first to be rounded up and killed by the hundreds as Iraqi forces discover mass graves on the outskirts of Mosul.
Their paranoia is not reserved solely for the ex-military, however. ISIS jihadis dressed up in standard Iraqi military uniforms and paraded through Hammam Alil, a town just south of Mosul, and arrested, and later killed, anyone who came out to celebrate the arrival of the “liberating Iraqi” forces.
Mosul is not the only important city to ISIS though. Raqqa, in Syria, is the organizations second center of operations. Also captured by the terrorists in 2014, with only 220,000 citizens, it is much smaller than Mosul. Raqqa is, however, important because of its location rather than size. Found centrally in Syria and close to the Turkish border, the city acts as a perfect spot for launching terror attacks.
Two weeks after the start of the Mosul campaign, U.S. backed coalition began a siege of Raqqa, known as Operation “Euphrates Anger”. The coalition, known as YGB includes Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians and Arabs but is dominated but Kurdish fighters. The YGB has managed to surround the city in a hope to cut off oil and arms from getting to ISIS militants while the U.S., Britain, and France lead airstrikes against the city.
If there is one thing for sure, it is that the fight in Mosul and Raqqa are of crucial importance. ISIS’s claim of being an Islamic state rests in their ability to maintain land. Without a land claim, or any stable location of which to plan attacks, ISIS, as we know it, no longer exists; especially if Baghdadi is killed in the process.
As Americans, we should be excited about this news. Finally, the cries for Middle Eastern problems to be solved by Middle Eastern countries and armies are being realized. While Westerners are still involved in the fight, very few are involved with boots-on-the-ground combat, where the vast majority of loss-of-life occurs.
Yet there is a humanitarian issue to this fight. While ISIS controls Mosul and Raqqa, the vast majority people inside the cities are non-combatants. Attacking forces must be strategic to eliminate civilian casualties while jihadi militants often use civilians as protection and camouflage. The close quarter combat make air strikes very risky and controversial.
The structural loses are not to be ignored either. As large sections of both cities will most likely be destroyed by any conflict, many civilians will be displaced. But given the option, refugees would rather choose the latter rather than the alternative. When coalition forces breached the eastern outskirts of Mosul, hundreds of refugees ran to meet them. Ran to safety. Their stories from the inside paint a picture of rash imprisonments, floggings, and public executions.
There is good news on the horizon for those living under ISIS control though. In 2015, ISIS lost 14 percent of the land it once claimed and in the first six months of 2016, has lost another 12 percent. This figure was calculated before either the Mosul or Raqqa campaigns began. Out of the 126 key locations ISIS once held (key locations are defined as cities, oil fields, large towns, ports, etc.), more than half have been lost including five of their 10 major cities.
If there is any good caused by the creation of ISIS, it is that national cooperation has increased because of the recent efforts. Sunni, Shi’ite, Christians, and the Kurds have all put aside their differences in the effort to stop ISIS. We can only hope this continues. The future of Mosul, if reclaimed, seems uncertain. The coalition fighting for the recapture includes Iraqi Shi’ite militia, Turkish troops, Kurds, Assyrian Christians and Yazidis, all with competing interests. One hypothesis of why Mosul fell so easily to ISIS is the Sunni population of the city welcomed the Sunni radical group and resented the Shi’ite Iraqi government. This is a problem.
Peace in the Middle East can only happen if different groups of people learn to live side-by-side with each other. Everyone must put aside their differences in the hope for peace. This however, based on history, seems much more like a fantasy than a reality.
David Csordas is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.