ISIS mural, eastern Mosul. Osie Greenway/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The military effort to expel ISIS from Iraq’s second city of Mosul started in mid-October 2016, with expectations that this would be completed by the end of the year. In the event, rapid progress into eastern Mosul in the first two weeks was followed by near-stalemate for two months, with the Iraqi army’s "golden division" – its 10,000-strong special-forces contingent – taking serious losses during the harsh urban fighting against an entrenched and determined enemy.
By the second week of January 2017 the army had regrouped and fought back into the city towards the river which divides it, aided by United States special-force advisors, increased air-support and American and French artillery-fire. The army now claims that the whole of eastern Mosul right up to the Tigris is subdued, although independent observers report that ISIS “left-behind” units are already harrying the support-troops deployed behind the golden division in an attempt to consolidate the attackers' position.
Iraq's military is reported to be preparing to contest the heart of ISIS control in western Mosul. But the defenders can mobilise considerable resources, indicating that the attackers may have to overcome even greater difficulties than in the earlier stages of this arduous campaign
The intensity of the coalition air-war ranged against ISIS for a full two-and-a-half years is often underestimated. As many as 30,000 targets have been hit by 60,000 missiles and bombs, and 50,000 ISIS supporters killed. This concentrated assault is clearly having an effect and ISIS is very much on the defensive. Against this background, it remains surprising that ISIS can still mount resistance at the current level. Yet for a movement that puts great store on having achieved a distinct geographical caliphate, present circumstances must be seen as the worst so far in its short history.
A patient adversary
In other respects, however, the war is actually going well for the movement – and it may even be moving towards the best of times. Four factors are relevant in this consideration.
The first is timescale. ISIS, like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) and other Islamist paramilitary groups, is not bound by the usual revolutionary calculations about when victory is expected. They have an eschatological dimension that looks far beyond this earthly life, measuring their prospects over many decades – even eternity. From this perspective, immediate reversals are simply part of a limitless war. This element is still almost impossible for many western analysts to understand.
The second is the ample evidence that the ISIS leadership has already come to see its much-vaunted caliphate as more a symbol of what may be possible rather than a fixed reality that will evolve further and broaden out from its current base. This may be why it is already planning for a durable insurgency in Iraq once Mosul falls to the government. Here, it will be aided by the continuing marginalisation of Iraq’s Sunni minority and the partial wrecking of the Iraqi army’s one dependable special-forces division in the assault on Mosul.
The third factor is current political and social developments in Europe, which provide ISIS with real cause for optimism. Brexit, the continuing influence of UKIP and fear of migrants in Britain; Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France; Geert Wilders and his followers in the Netherlands; the rise of far-right parties in Denmark, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere; the demonisation of desperate refugees in the Balkans; the steady rise of anti-Muslim antagonisn across Europe – all are developments that ISIS strategists regard as in their favour.
The fourth – US president Donald J Trump – is the icing on the cake for ISIS, not least as his campaign rhetoric is rapidly being translated into action. From domestic moves over the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, and the junking of Obamacare, to withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the intended implementation of the border wall with Mexico, the new administration's divisive stances are already becoming clear.
These extend to tough new entry restrictions affecting people from a number of countries in the Middle East and Africa, keeping open the Guantánamo Bay detention centre, reviewing the possibility of re-establishing the CIA’s “black site” overseas detention programme, and the return of “enhanced interrogation". There is likely to be much more to come in the next few days – much of it, as with the above, welcome to ISIS and its ilk.
In the short term, the Trump approach and similar outlooks in Europe may well give the appearance of success, in part by satisfying the uncertainty and fear that have helped foment the changed political climate. The longer term looks different, especially if existing measures are paralleled by increased military action in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and by Israel building thousands more houses in the occupied territories.
This mix of policies will simply bolster the Islamist view of a crusader assault from the west and bring many more recruits to the cause. That process may take a decade or more to have its full effect. But for a movement such as ISIS which looks a century and more ahead, that period isn’t, after all, so very long. The best of times for ISIS might not be here quite yet, but the view from Raqqa is that they will surely come.