Two years and four months after Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri appeared at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul to proclaim the birth of the Islamic State with himself as its caliph, Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, backed by their Western allies and the Turkish military, have begun their long-anticipated effort to recapture their country’s second-largest city. Early progress in the operations has been reported to be faster than anticipated, though operations to clear the route into the city, winding through dozens of heavily-mined villages, could take weeks. Iraqi officials have said the battle to take Mosul itself is expected to be slow and bloody, since the Islamic State has turned the city into a maze of booby-traps. This much military experts concur on: Unlike in 2014, when the Islamic State drove before it an Iraqi army fractured by ethnic-religious schisms and corruption, it now has little hope of survival. Indeed, columns of Islamic State forces have been streaming west, headed towards the ancient fortress town of Tel Afar, and on to the so-called caliphate’s old headquarters at Raqqa.
For three reasons, though, it’s not quite clear that the liberation of Mosul will resemble anything that might meaningfully be called a victory. First, the Shi’a militia spearheading the Iraqi drive on Mosul are resented and feared by the city’s mainly Sunni population. Ethnic-religious chauvinism had, prior to 2014, contributed to the erosion of the Iraqi state’s legitimacy; it could do so again. Secondly, there is no agreement between the two great powers involved in the conflict, Russia and the US, on how to take the anti-Islamic State offensive forward from Mosul to Raqqa. Frictions between the powers over Syria’s eventual fate continue to stall united action against the Islamic State, and could give it a new lease of life. Third, and perhaps most important, the thousands of fighters the Islamic State marshaled to its side from Arab states and around the world will not just disappear: Many have already headed to sanctuaries in Libya and Afghanistan; others will, in time, merge into other jihadist organisations that have founded little Emirates in the region, or return to their homelands to continue their jihad.
The truth is this: For all the fear it inspired, the Islamic State was just an agent for a wider problem that preceded its rise, and will outlive its fall. Failing a paradigm shift in how the world handles Islamist terrorism, the fall of Mosul will prove only a tactical reverse for the jihadists.