Monday 22 January 2018

As end of Isil strongholds draws near, its threat to the West will grow dramatically

Turkey's President Erdogan Photo: Getty images
Turkey's President Erdogan Photo: Getty images

Con Coughlin

Of all the ways the world is likely to change in 2017, the destruction of the self-proclaimed Islamist caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq is one we can anticipate with some confidence.


The only downside to the welcome end to the territorial project of Isil is that it will most likely result in a dramatic upsurge in Isil terror attacks in the Middle East and beyond.

Isil's transformation from a state-building franchise to a global terrorist network is clearly evident in the new year attacks in Istanbul and Baghdad, which can be related to the increasing pressure Isil is under to prevent its caliphate's collapse in Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, a US-led coalition is making encouraging headway in its attempts to liberate Mosul from Isil.

In Syria, the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey has seen Isil's stronghold in Raqqa come under renewed pressure.

It is now clear that Isil's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ordered the Istanbul nightclub attack that killed 39 partygoers in the early hours of New Year's Day, as well as the suicide car bombing in a busy square in Baghdad the following day, as a direct response to the setbacks Isil has suffered around Mosul and Raqqa.

The Baghdad suicide bombing, which took place in the Shi'ite Muslim stronghold of Sadr City, was designed to send a clear signal to the Shi'ite government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that Isil's Sunni Muslim extremists had no intention of ending their campaign to establish and maintain their fiefdom in Iraq.

The Reina nightclub massacre in Istanbul, on the other hand, was Isil's way of trying to persuade Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to end Turkey's recent military campaign against Isil in Syria.

Mr Erdogan, who has shown Sunni Islamist sympathies of his own in the past, has no one but himself to blame for the upsurge in Isil attacks against Turkey during the past year.

During the early stages of the Syrian conflict Mr Erdogan, a committed opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was accused of providing tacit support to Isil, allowing militants to smuggle arms across the Turkish border to their Syrian strongholds.

But fears that Isil's dominance of northern Syria would enable Kurdish separatists to expand efforts to create an inwdependent state on the Turkish border obliged Mr Erdogan to make a U-turn, and close down the Isil supply routes.

The result has been a wave of devastating Isil attacks, including last June's assault on Istanbul's airport.

The concern now is that, with the military campaign to destroy Isil's main headquarters in Mosul and Raqqa set to intensify in 2017, the organisation will respond by carrying out even more outrageous attacks, including against Western targets.

Isil has already demonstrated its willingness to use chemical weapons; intelligence officials believe it has carried out such attacks against civilians in Syria.

And as Isil has no moral barrier to using chemical weapons against civilian targets, destroying Isil's terrorist infrastructure, as well as its territorial strongholds, should be our top priority in 2017.

Otherwise there will be further atrocities on the scale of Paris, Nice, Berlin, Istanbul and the other places suffering at the hands of this barbarous movement.

US president-elect Donald Trump's impending arrival at the White House certainly presents an opportunity to form a global consensus on defeating Isil, just as happened in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001, when world leaders agreed on destroying al-Qa'ida.

During the eight years President Barack Obama has been in office, attempts to formulate a common policy have often been undermined by wrangles between Moscow and Washington over the fate of Mr Assad, as well as the outgoing president's disinclination to involve himself.

But now that Russia has succeeded in its objective of saving Mr Assad, Mr Trump has an opportunity to test Russian President Vladimir Putin's claim that his ultimate goal has been the destruction of Isil.

For if the Russian leader is serious about destroying the modern curse of Islamist-inspired terrorism, and not just playing puerile mind games with the West, then there is no reason why 2017 should not only lead to the liberation of Isil's territorial strongholds, but also curtail its ability to terrorise the civilised world.

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