If Islamic State loses Fallujah and Raqqa, the ‘caliphate’ will be over
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Analysis

If Islamic State loses Fallujah and Raqqa, the ‘caliphate’ will be over

Attacked on numerous fronts, the brutal jihadist group is no longer certain to survive; it may ultimately become 'just' another evil terrorist organization

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Members of Iraq's elite counter-terrorism service flash the "V" for victory sign on December 29, 2015 in the city of Ramadi after Iraqi forces recaptured it from the Islamic State jihadist group. AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)
Members of Iraq's elite counter-terrorism service flash the "V" for victory sign on December 29, 2015 in the city of Ramadi after Iraqi forces recaptured it from the Islamic State jihadist group. AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

It may be too soon to write off Islamic State, the fundamentalist Sunni terror organization controlling large swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, but there are hints that the terror group is beginning to crumble under the pressure of attacks from multiple fronts.

In a series of deadly attacks in the Alawite region of Syria just this week, Islamic State bombs killed some 150 people; in Fallujah, Iraq, only an hour’s drive from Baghdad, at least 35 Iraqi soldiers and Shiite militia forces were killed when they were trying to liberate the city from IS control; and earlier this month, a series of deadly terror attacks ripped through the city of Baghdad, killing hundreds.

But despite the death and destruction Islamic State is leaving in its wake, an examination of recent developments on both the Iraqi and Syrian fronts demonstrates how dire the organization’s state has become, as an Iraqi-Iranian alliance is closing in on it from the east while Kurdish and American forces are advancing from the north.

Outnumbered to the east

In the east, war is raging on the outskirts of Fallujah, where IS is attempting to reap as many casualties as it can by employing its tried and true fighting techniques – those that helped it capture the city in the first place – namely the use of suicide attackers driving cars rigged with explosives into Iraqi army posts.

Iraqi security forces gather on the outskirts of Fallujah as they prepare an operation aimed at retaking the city from the Islamic State (IS) group, on May 22, 2016. (AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)
Iraqi security forces gather on the outskirts of Fallujah as they prepare an operation aimed at retaking the city from the Islamic State (IS) group, on May 22, 2016. (AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

Fallujah is extremely important to IS; it was the first city to be seized by the organization and the base from which it began its violent escapades into the region. As a result, fighting at Fallujah may drag on for months to come.

It’s fair to assume that IS will do almost anything to defend the city and to prove it can survive. But IS fighters’ famously fearsome reputation and high motivation – the elements that often gave them the upper hand even when outnumbered – may not be enough to help them out of their current plight. The city of Ramadi, a symbol of resistance against American forces just a decade ago, was recaptured from IS in a mere month.

The Iranians, perhaps out of concern for the Iraqi and militia forces fighting IS, sent Qassem Sulaimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, to oversee fighting at Fallujah. His forces, alongside militia fighters and Iraqi soldiers, comprise some 20,000 men facing only around 1,000 IS fighters barricaded inside the city.

FILE -- In this June 5, 2013 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a damaged street is seen in Qusair, Syria. Syria's civil war has morphed into a proxy fight in which Shiite Iran has strongly backed Assad, while Sunni Arab nations have backed rebels. (Photo credit: AP/SANA)
In this June 5, 2013 file photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a damaged street is seen in Qusair, Syria. Syria’s civil war has morphed into a proxy fight in which Shiite Iran has strongly backed Assad, while Sunni Arab nations have backed rebels. (AP/SANA)

In light of the Iraqi offensive that began again this week, IS may try to demonstrate its ongoing capacity to wreak havoc by targeting locations across Europe and the West. Whatever horrors it can unleash, however, the fall of Fallujah would constitute a crushing blow to IS sovereignty in the east.

Trouble from the north

Fighting on the northern front will take longer to be resolved. Although Syrian opposition forces have already begun carpet bombing villages in the Raqqa district, the fighting there is still some 60 kilometers (37 miles) away from the heart of the IS stronghold in the city of Raqqa itself.

Operations carried out against IS in the Raqqa district are being overseen and aided by American forces. The American contribution to the offensive against IS was underlined by a recent visit to the front by the commander of the United States Central Command, Josef Votel, where he met with representatives of Syrian and Kurdish forces fighting IS, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces and the YPG, which is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party in Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel speaks to reporters at a base in Taji, Iraq, Friday, May 20, 2016 (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
Army Gen. Joseph Votel speaks to reporters at a base in Taji, Iraq, Friday, May 20, 2016 (AP Photo/Robert Burns)

The joint Kurdish-Syrian offensive on Raqqa may take some time, but even the mere announcement of its commencement is reason for IS to worry.

Is this the end?

It may be that the fighting around Fallujah and Raqqa is only just beginning, but we can cautiously say at this point that the survival of IS is no longer a given. If the IS strongholds in Raqqa and Fallujah fall, all the organization will have left is control over the small area of Mosul, which is bound to be captured by the Iraqi army or by pro-Iranian militia forces.

Overpowered on its home turf, IS would shift from the bureaucratic enterprise of running a sharia state to become one of the pedestrian variety of terror groups — the kind that “only” conduct terror and guerrilla attacks.

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