Iraqi forces continue to advance on al-Qaem, the last "Islamic State" (ISIS) stronghold in Iraq, which will put the last stone over the terrorist group’s grave and on the so-called “Islamic State Caliphate” that so much occupied the world’s headlines over the last few years and indeed, large parts of Iraqi and Syrian territories.
ISIS is aware that al-Qaem will fall very soon - the city won’t be able to hold for very long. Therefore, many of the group's leaders and militants have fled to the numerous refugee camps which have emerged in the last years – according to intelligence reports – in the Iraqi Anbar desert and the Syrian al-Badiya where ISIS can hide along the tens of thousands of kilometers of sprawling Syrian-Iraqi border areas among refugees.
ISIS is expected to lick its wounds to try and re-organize its group following the defeat inflicted upon it as indicated by its shrinking territory (which it has occupied since 2014), as well as its shrinking numbers. Many foreign fighters were either killed or mostly left the group, which has remained largely incapable of recruiting new forces. Moreover, ISIS resources have dried up: no more oil and gas fields under its control, no more taxes to be imposed, no more arts and crafts to steal and sell, and no more “donations” from the Arab world.
Furthermore, the terror group has lost its very powerful, efficient, and unique propaganda tools and machine as after the liberation of Mosul and most of Iraq, the liberation of Palmyra, Raqqah, Deir-ezzour, most of al-Badiya, the Syrian Army liberated the city of al-Mayadeen, where ISIS kept its media base. Forces in al-Mayadeen seized a huge stock of ISIS propaganda tools and apparatus, reducing the group’s capability to produce online and offline propaganda.
Nevertheless, it must be borne in mind that terrorism can never be totally defeated and it is obvious that cells remain active and will always find societies to host it or cover its back. Therefore, ISIS terrorist attacks in Mesopotamia, the Levant, West Africa, Asia and other parts of the world are expected to take place from time to time. This certainly doesn’t mean ISIS is returning or will become strong again, but on the contrary, it will be the group’s way of saying: “You think I am dead, but can still cause harm.”
Today, the basis of any such “Islamic state” has been destroyed. ISIS has lost the two key cities that formed 'Islamic States' in ancient Islam (in Iraq and Syria), which leaves ISIS in a position of non-return to the era of 2014 when it occupied most of northern Iraq and a big part of Syria. In fact, ISIS has been pushed today into the dustbin of history.
Many speculations continue to surface about the “challenge Iraq will face to avoid the return of ISIS to the 2014 era.” These speculations and analyses are based on pessimism and a lack of contact among "experts" with the ground and its dynamics as they pontificate while sitting comfortably thousands of miles away from Iraq and Syria. Today ISIS is the enemy of Shias, Sunni, Christians, Yazidi, Kurds and everybody else. Iraqis have experienced ISIS’ way of ruling and won’t allow it to return to occupy territory.
Concerning reconstruction, yes, this is a real challenge facing every country at war. The whole of Europe (including Germany) suffered for decades from the German occupation and the destruction caused by two World Wars. Lebanon’s economy and infrastructure has still not recovered since the 1975 civil war. Syria, Yemen and Iraq will all suffer the financial burden caused by the devastation of war. All this is not new because war leaves behind destruction of the infrastructure and of homes, and leaves thousands of wounded in continuous need of expensive care, even if the world unites to support reconstruction.
As for the political outcome in Iraq, the country proved to be outside the Iranian and American sphere of control. Iraq (Baghdad to Erbil) benefited from Iranian military support in 2014 when the US watched and waited for over six months while ISIS was swallowing city after city. But later on, when the US decided to intervene, Iraq benefited from American intelligence information, training and air support to defeat ISIS. Iraq also benefited from good relations with its neighbors like Turkey, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia regardless of the level of animosity between some of these countries and Iran. Baghdad made it clear that its line of policy doesn’t go against anyone and would like to stay out of regional and international disputes. Iraq is further aiming to distance itself from the Middle Eastern rivalries because its national interest comes before all other regional or international interests. Doubtless Iraq can play a role of mediation between the countries of the Middle East, but it will do so only if asked.
In fact, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and envoy of the Gran Ayatollah Ali Kaminei, General Qassem Soleimani, offers his country’s support for the unity of Iraq and the defeat of ISIS. Like the US Special Presidential Envoy for Global Coalition to defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, both have the same objectives and cannot expect that Iraq will adopt their respective policies in the Middle East nor adapt their animosity. Moreover, Baghdad is establishing good relationships with Damascus and is cooperating with the Syrian Army to defeat terrorism which hits both countries, despite the US stand against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Also, the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi recently traveled to both Riyad and Turkey to promote reconstruction and investment in his country regardless of well-known Saudi and Turkish support of ISIS (known as al-Qaeda in Iraq up to and including 2014).
Therefore, Iraq won’t be a platform for Iran nor the US to fight their wars on its territory despite the presence of over 5200 US military personnel and the presence of Iraqi groups and organizations close to Iran. These Iraqi groups are today assisting the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in their war on terror. Some will remain within the PMF and others will detach themselves by the end of this war. These are ideologically linked to Iran’s religious leadership – as are many Shia in the Islamic World – but are Iraqis who won’t act against their country’s interest because they are part of Iraqi society. Actually, as there are many Iraqi Kurds faithful to the US in Kurdistan Iraq, there are also Iraqi Sunni faithful to Saudi Arabia. Since Mesopotamia is walking towards democracy, the presence of cultural, religious and political diversity and alliances is only natural.
There will be no tolerance from Baghdad leadership – after the defeat of ISIS – towards any religious or political group willing to keep its weapon or armed groups outside the military and security institutions. The PMF is like the Counter Terrorism Forces, the Federal Police and the Army, all under the command of the Iraqi Prime Minister who is also the supreme head of the armed forces. Since the war on ISIS, and the creation of the PMU in 2014, it has never fulfilled non-Iraqi agendas regardless of its raised banners in the battlefield.
In Iraq, there is a new reality everybody should understand: no hostile propaganda can affect the security forces or the political leadership. Mesopotamia will declare a national independence day the moment ISIS occupation of every city is ended. With the end of ISIS, all foreign influence, regional or international, will cease. Iraq is planning to keep many friends and allies and build bridges for a new Iraq.