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ISIS Is Now Caught Between Raqqa and a Hard Place

Good news from the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:

ISIS Is Now Caught Between Raqqa and a Hard Place

Outstanding news as the week progresses:

American-backed forces said on Tuesday that they had seized the northern Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State, a major blow to the militant group, which had long used the city as the de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate.

Celebrations erupted in Raqqa, where residents had lived under the repressive rule of militants who beheaded people for offenses as minor as smoking. Fighters could be seen cheering and firing celebratory gunfire in the streets, according to residents reached by phone and text message.

The United States Central Command stopped short of declaring victory, saying that “more than 90 percent of Raqqa is in S.D.F. control,” a reference to the Syrian Democratic Forces, an American-backed militia group made up of Syrian Kurds and Arabs.

Col. Ryan S. Dillon, a spokesman for the United States military in Baghdad, said Tuesday that Raqqa was on the verge of being liberated, but that there were still pockets of the city controlled by the Islamic State. Syrian Democratic Forces officers, however, were emphatic in phone interviews and public statements that they had finally wrested control of the city from the militants after a monthslong campaign.

“The military operation is over,” said Talal Salo, a commander reached by phone at the group’s headquarters in Hasaka.

Newsweek looks at recent presidential boasting about ISIS and it’s easy to get the sense that the publication would love to rebuke Donald Trump for taking credit for something he did not influence. But the magazine can’t quite dismiss all of the evidence that the momentum of battle has shifted in the past year. Maybe that’s a result of presidential decisions, or perhaps Trump’s decision to defer to his generals on most of the details. Either way, Trump hasn’t loused it up, and he’s in position to reap the accolades.

Perhaps the two most symbolic victories against ISIS have occurred while Trump has been in office: the retaking of the Iraqi city of Mosul in July, and now the liberation of Raqqa. U.S. officials have also claimed that the recapturing of ISIS-held territory has accelerated under Trump. Special Presidential Envoy McGurk—who held the same role in the Obama administration—said that of the 27,000 square miles of territory in Iraq and Syria reclaimed from ISIS since 2014, around 8,000 square miles have been retaken under Trump’s watch.

But some commentators have claimed that Trump is simply reaping the benefits of the hard graft put in by the former administration. The battle for Mosul, for example, commenced in October 2016 and lasted for nine months: Iraqi forces had liberated the whole of eastern Mosul by January 24—four days into Trump’s presidency—with the remaining six months consisting of a gruelling slog for the Old City.

This is a bit like arguing that Harry S. Truman didn’t preside over the Allied victory in World War Two, because Franklin Roosevelt had done so much before.

It is worth noting that while controlling swaths of territory made ISIS distinct, it was not the only feature that made it dangerous. The New York Times talks to terrorism experts and concludes that the group will probably refocus its efforts on the method that worries us the most, attacks in Western countries:

The group has also developed a powerful social media network that with no physical presence allows it to spew propaganda, claim responsibility for terrorist attacks, and not just inspire attacks but also help plot and execute them remotely.

A large share of its attacks in the West in recent years have been carried out by men who communicated online with ISIS, taking detailed instructions through encrypted messages, but never meeting their terrorist mentors…

And the group has continued to sow chaos even as it has lost territory. In 2017 alone, it has claimed responsibility for three terrorist attacks in Britain that killed 37 people, the Istanbul nightclub bombing on New Year’s Eve that killed 39 people, and strikes in more than seven other countries.

As the group was losing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in August, it sent a van tearing through crowds in the heart of Barcelona, killing 13 people and loudly declaring its continued relevance.

Our fight against ISIS, and the broader movement of violent Islamist extremism, is far from over. But we have enough bad days; we should take moments to celebrate the victories.

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