Sulaimania – The military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) is entering a crucial phase, Iraqi and Western analysts say.
According to a recent study, in the past three months the group has lost 8 percent of its territory in Syria and Iraq.
The past six months have seen the reclaiming of some significant and symbolic territories from ISIL in both Syria and Iraq. With Coalition Forces stating that 20 percent of ISIL-held territory in Syria and 40 percent in Iraq were regained in 2015.
While Kurdish officials acknowledge the group’s retreat, they nonetheless warn that any attempt to downplay the role Kurdish ground forces played in the war effort against ISIL will “only sow the seeds for future conflicts”.
“The momentum of the recent successes against ISIL must not be lost, but in order for these successes to be maintained we must examine the root causes and make sure that there is an inclusive political process in conjunction with the military strategy to avoid further sectarian issues post-ISIL,” Barham Salih, former Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), told Al Jazeera.
Salih was a keynote speaker at the Sulaimania Forum on the same topic in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimania on March 16-17. The two-day forum, organised by the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), also included senior politicians, diplomats and analysts.
But with Mosul and Raqqa still firmly in ISIL’s grasp and territorial gains on their southern borders in Syria, just how close is victory?
With Mosul and Raqqa still firmly in ISIL's grasp and territorial gains on their southern borders in Syria, just how close is victory?
Kurdish security experts have criticised the anti-ISIL coalition’s reluctance to view Iraq and Syria as one arena when it comes to ISIL. ISIL fighters themselves pay little notice to national borders.
There has been some co-ordination between Kurdish forces across the frontlines in Iraq and Syria, with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces forming a significant presence during the liberation of Sinjar in November last year and the KRG’s Peshmerga joining the defence of Kobane.
Another factor that has hindered the military campaign is the lack of a truly unified command in Iraq or Syria. The internal political and sectarian divisions emerge as the various groups vie for influence in post-ISIL territorial gains.
Few – if any – of the local military forces are without partisan allegiances and agendas. A truly national agenda is lacking, making it much harder to create a well-coordinated and unified strategy.
Hayder al-Khoei, a research fellow at the London-based policy institute Chatham House, expressed a measure of optimism.
“In some ways, ISIL has acted as a glue that has brought together their various and diverse enemies and created a more united front to confront them,” he told Al Jazeera.
Although Khoei recognises “it may not be coordination and cooperation to the degree that is required but certainly there has been much better coordination and this is not just internally. Both Iran and the US are on the same side in Iraq supporting the central government in Baghdad and regional government in Erbil”.
One of the reoccurring themes has been the need to reinforce the political process.
“I think this is why it is important to have political deals and resolutions now not just after the liberation and military campaigns,” said Christine van den Toorn, director of the institute of Regional and International Studies at American University in Sulaimania.
She added: “Politics will also challenge any ‘calm’ after the storm, as we see happening in places like Sinjar and Tuz Khormatu.”
Despite these ongoing challenges to the military campaign against ISIL, some like Khoei remain confident that military victory is imminent, even if ISIL is likely to remain a formidable terrorist organisation and security threat.
“The internal cracks in Iraq will deepen. Alongside Sunni insurgency, Shia militias will be the biggest challenge to the authority of the central government. There is no vision in Iraq for what a post-ISIL reconciliation will look like and what the terms of the settlement will be. The biggest fear is that after ISIL we will have another version that exploits the same underlying causes which gave birth to ISIL,” he said.
Internal differences are not the only issue complicating the military campaign. Both Iraq and the Kurdistan region are facing a crippling economic crisis, in part due to the crash in oil prices.
Civil servants, including the Peshmerga, have gone unpaid for six months, with a partial reinstatement of salaries for this month (although no back payment of the unpaid salaries). There has been some debate as to how much longer the Kurds in particular can sustain the war effort against ISIL, with members of the KRG openly saying that it’s hard to win a war when the KRG is nearly bankrupt.
Salih added that “ISIL is a regional problem, and pushing ISIL out of Iraq whilst they are still in Syria is not a true solution”.
Follow Lara Fatah on Twitter: @Lara_FFatah