Fanatics back-pedal in Iraq but Sunni states hold real key to their demise
Published 31/12/2015 | 02:30
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled leader of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), must regret ever making his boastful Saint Stephen's Day message that, for all the coalition's efforts, his organisation continues to grow and expand.
No sooner had his message been broadcast through the Arab media than the Iraqi government announced one of the most significant military gains of 2015 - the recapture of the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi just 60 miles from Baghdad.
Isil's capture of Ramadi last spring represented a severe setback to Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, who, with the help of Iranian-backed militias, had just succeeded in recapturing another iconic Sunni position from Isil - former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit.
The liberation of Tikrit, moreover, was supposed to be the precursor for a far more challenging military offensive to liberate Mosul, Iraq's second city, which was overrun during Isil's initial invasion of Iraq in the summer of 2014.
But the manner of Isil's capture of Ramadi, where a few hundred jihadist fighters managed to rout a far stronger and better-equipped Iraqi force, put paid to any thoughts of liberating Mosul.
On the contrary, the Iraqi military's dire performance at Ramadi totally undermined the confidence of coalition commanders in its ability to take the fight to Isil. Thus, the much-vaunted plan to liberate Mosul was quietly shelved in favour of rebuilding the war-fighting military capability of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).
In the complex campaign to destroy Isil in both Iraq and Syria, coalition leaders have concluded that it is vital that the ISF has the will as well as the strength to defeat its highly motivated and well-resourced foe. If the threat posed by jihadist fanatics can be eradicated in Iraq, then that will provide a firm platform from which to launch a decisive push to crush Isil in Syria.
The 'Iraq First' policy, as some coalition commanders now refer to it, has seen American and British military advisers concentrate their efforts on rebuilding the strength of the ISF to the point where they can provide the ground component that will be essential if the Iraqi government is to achieve its long-term aim of reclaiming control of the whole country from Islamist militants.
And, to judge by the success of the joint ISF/coalition operation to recapture Ramadi, the coalition may now have found a workable template for defeating Isil, one that holds the promise of further significant coalition gains in 2016.
Arguably the biggest criticism of coalition efforts to defeat Isil in Syria has been the absence of effective ground forces to exploit the damage inflicted on Isil positions by coalition air strikes.
In Ramadi, however, this shortcoming was addressed by the ISF which, taking advantage of highly effective US and British air strikes against Isil positions, stormed the city centre and raised the national flag over the newly-liberated Ramadi government compound.
The advance certainly gave a hollow ring to al-Baghdadi's boast that the coalition will not "dare send their troops against us". On the contrary, the dawn of 2016 finds Isil very much on the defensive in both Iraq and Syria, where the intensification of coalition air strikes - in part due to the Commons vote to allow RAF bombing operations in Syria - has seriously disrupted the organisation's lucrative oil-smuggling operation.
The big question now, though, is whether this successful military operation can be extended to inflict further defeats against Isil in Syria, as well as Iraq. Mosul, Iraq's second city, with a population of around 1.5 million, presents a far more challenging target than Ramadi, and coalition commanders fear the battle to recapture the city, which is scheduled for autumn next year, will involve intense street-to-street fighting, with Isil jihadists using Iraqi civilians as human shields.
Speaking shortly after the recapture of Ramadi, however, Mr al-Abadi promised to bring all of Iraq under the control of the country's democratically-elected government by the end of 2016.
Doing so is deemed vital if the US-led coalition is to stand any chance of defeating Isil on the ground in neighbouring Syria, where the situation is immensely more complex than that in Iraq.
Many of the Sunni-aligned rebel groups operating on the ground in Syria appear more interested in fighting the Assad regime than Isil, and David Cameron has now been forced to back down from his claim that there are 70,000 pro-Western fighters in Syria willing to do battle.
One possible solution would be for the coalition to work closely with the 34-nation Islamic military alliance Saudi Arabia established earlier this month to combat Islamist-inspired terrorism.
If the Sunni states start playing a more active role, then Isil truly will be staring at possible defeat in Iraq and Syria. (© Daily Telegraph, London)