Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote that if a victory is told in detail, it becomes hard to distinguish it from a defeat. This is certainly true of the current narrative about the recapture of the Iraqi city of Mosul, held by Islamic State since June 2014.
With embedded reporters dramatically reporting minute-by-minute advances, an obvious fact is left unspoken: that Iraq’s second largest city, a community of close to two million residents, has been in the hands of a non-state armed group for two and a half years.
However formidable a military force Islamic State is, such an entity simply should not be in control of a city of that magnitude.
Beyond the expected difficulty of retaking Mosul, two facts indicate that the upcoming victory will be outweighed by the larger historical issues raised by Islamic State. The ongoing, decade-old militarised insurgency throughout Iraq will continue. And the elasticity of Islamic State’s positioning across the region will mean it can find new territory.
The long battle for Mosul
The “Battle for Mosul” narrative has been going on for so long that it is now in its third edition.
In August 2014, as the Iraqi army was still dealing with its shock eviction from Mosul by Islamic State (around 30,000 soldiers reportedly fled the region in the face of 1,500 militants), Iraq’s military (with US aerial support) initiated engagements with the group around the city.
In October, it was announced that plans to retake the city were under consideration. Later that year, Iraqi officials declared that the offensive was still under preparation. A year later, in December 2015, following the liberation of Ramadi, it was again announced that Mosul would be next.
Now, 28 months after Mosul fell, a territorially confined armed group of approximately 5,000 irregular fighters is battling the following parties: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the US-trained Iraqi military, the Iraqi official militia known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (set up in mid-June 2014 precisely to combat Islamic State after Mosul’s fall), experienced Iranian military advisers, and battle-hardened Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni warrior tribes.
Islamic State forces in Mosul are also encircled further north by a newly active Turkish military and, on the Syrian side, by the other coalition fighting the group: namely Russia, Syria and Hezbollah. This closes the corridor to the group’s de facto capital in Raqqa.
The sum total of all these forces should have long ago spelled defeat for a non-state actor, never mind one sitting within a hostile population.
Reverting to type
Above and beyond the micro-narrative of the Mosul affair, what is being overlooked is the deeper meaning of Islamic State – and that it was already threat before its capture of Mosul.
From late 2011, when it began to formally emerge, to mid-2013 when it regionalised – changing from the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Shaam/Levant (ISIS/L) – the group had already gained great stature. Since then, it has only built on that stature; more than 20 groups have pledged allegiance to it around the world.
In leading a series of attacks across Iraq, in expanding to Syria and in dislodging Al Qaeda internationally, Islamic State had already become the leading radical Islamist group. If Mosul falls, it can simply revert to type.
One tactic the group may adopt next is to accelerate and increase classic hit-and-run urban terrorist operations throughout Iraq. Now further militarised and sometimes drone-weaponised, this type of operation was tested lethally over the summer in several neighbourhoods of Baghdad.
The second possible pattern – also previewed last year – is redoubled investment in ungoverned spaces and regions in transition where the state is enfeebled. Priority destinations will be Libya and possibly the Sinai. These are two areas where active groups have already pledged allegiance to Islamic State and which are officially considered to be its “regions” (wilayas).
Although the battle in Libya is still ongoing, the absence of formal unity amongst the various actors there and the ambient chaos, would play in favour of the group, which has previously staged operations and shot execution videos there.
The future of Islamic State
Ultimately, was Mosul that important for Islamic State? Is Raqqa? Isn’t it the case that the capture of those regional urban centres is the consequence of the historical contingencies and perfect storms of deteriorating conflicts?
In Iraq, the group’s success owed much to Sunni resentment and Ba’athi vengeance, with Sunni tribesmen providing the soldiery and former senior officers becoming the cadre of the group.
In Syria, Bashar al Assad’s cautious focus on the “useful” territory he wanted to protect in the Syrian civil war led to adventurism further north in rebel-held lands such as Raqqa.
Indeed, for the transnational group that Islamic State was before it captured Mosul (as result of its Al Qaeda DNA), territory itself is a malleable commodity.
If the territorial approach fails, the online space, which the group has capitalised on, and the postmodern incarnations of its brand of terrorism, provide equal opportunities for Islamic State to evolve, and to keep fighting.