Iraq has restored full control of its third city. The battle for Mosul is over. It took 8 months, 3 weeks and 4 days. When the city fell to ISIS in 2014 the Iraqi army was routed in all of 6 days.
The loss of the largest city it ever captured is a huge material loss for ISIS, but its reputation and brand won’t have suffered nearly as much. ISIS is now further along towards losing its territorial state, but then its ultimate defeat in Iraq was never really in question. Having forced a 37-week bloodletting on the Iraqi military to take it back its reputation for skill and tenacity in battle will escape unscathed. So while it has lost a massive source of revenue and conscripted local fighters its legend and popularity among foreign supporters — fans, donors and possible recruits will remain as high as ever.
Let us recall that when the operation to take back the city was launched last October very few would have predicted it would have dragged on for eight months. Fewer still would have guessed at the time that Aleppo in Syria would be liberated a full six months before Mosul was.
Looking at it in October the Iraqi army had just the one enemy, with the entire world morally and politically lined up behind it, and Iran, the US, and Iraqi Kurds all offering a very substantial helping hand for the fight. The Syrian army meanwhile faced at least a two-front war between ISIS on the one hand and US-backed Islamist rebels on the other. Any help from the Russians and Iranians was more than offset by the long-running international, but chiefly American, Saudi and Turkish campaign against it. Yet Aleppo would be cleared within ten weeks of Obama’s announcement that Mosul campaign has commenced, while the latter would go well into Trump’s tenure in the White House.
What comes next for ISIS is clear. It will lose its territorial caliphate but having carved out a state of some 5 million people and held it for over two years, it has already been the most successful modern jihadist phenomena by leaps and bounds. If it fights to the end and manages to maintain its brand, it can continue to inspire jihadists—and sow chaos and misery from the grave for decades to come.
What comes next for the Iraqi army is another characteristic respite after a major campaign and then another offensive. Question is where. The remaining ISIS areas in Iraq are Tal Afar in the north, Hawija in the east, and Quaim on the Syrian border in the west.
The exact order matters little for the conflict in Iraq, but by going for Quaim on the Euphrates first Baghdad could exert major influence on the conflict in Syria. Liberating border areas with Syria would shore up the Syrian army flank in souther Syria and help Damascus take Syria’s Euphrates valley before the Kurdish YPG militias and US special forces do.