After months of unremittingly dark tidings from Syria and Iraq, some slivers of hope are beginning to shine through. The terrorist army that calls itself the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) has in recent days suffered a series of military reversals.
The Mosul dam, a vital asset, has been wrested back from IS control. In Amerli, a small town where residents held out against an IS onslaught for weeks on end, the siege has been broken. In both instances, Iraqi forces—regular and irregular—were backed by American air support.
And now, Iraqi soldiers are advancing on Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, where IS has for several weeks seemed solidly entrenched.
Caution is appropriate, caveats necessary—and I will come to those. But small as they may appear, these victories are of vital importance, for several reasons.
The humanitarian ones are obvious: the residents of Amerli are celebrating their escape from certain genocide. The Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, facing the choice of starvation or slaughter, now have a safe passage out.
But the victories also represent strategic, political and psychological gains.
For a start, they challenge the narrative that IS is both an irresistible force and an immovable object. Until the reversal at the Mosul dam, the terrorists had been able to take pretty much any territory they wanted, and hold on to it without much difficulty. It was crucial to demonstrate—to Iraqis, to the world, and to the terrorists themselves—that the tide could be halted, and turned back. We know now that they can be beaten.
We also know how: by a combination of American air power and Iraqi boots on the ground. The combination of US airstrikes and Kurdish Peshmerga militias halted the IS advance outside Erbil. The addition of regular Iraqi forces to this mix helped in the recovery of the Mosul dam. The siege of Amerli was broken by Iraqi forces and Shia militias, again supported by US airstrikes. This winning formula will no doubt be applied in Tikrit, as well.
The successes are a major boost for the Iraqi security forces, a chance to recover from the shame of having abandoned, without much of a fight, so much ground to the terrorists.
They also give US president Barack Obama an opportunity to build a strategy that allows him to keep his word that there will be no American boots on the ground in the fight against IS—as well as his promise to defeat the terrorists.
Finally, the victories against IS create some much-needed political space for Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to reach out to the Sunni tribes that are fighting alongside IS, and try to break that unholy coalition. The challenge is to refrain from punishing the tribes and bring more Sunnis in from the political cold.
Now for those caveats. It is far from certain that Abadi will be more inclusive leader that his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki: they are, after all, cut from the same cloth. And the militias that helped the Iraqi forces in Amerli and at the Mosul dam are themselves dangerous outliers, as likely to fight against Baghdad as with it.
Then there’s the matter of the IS’s safe haven in Syria, to which its fighters have been withdrawing when challenged in Iraq. The formula that has been working in Iraq will be harder—but not impossible—to apply in Syria.
And if there’s humanitarian relief in the reversals IS has suffered, I fear there will also be a terrible humanitarian cost: The murder of journalist Steven Sotloff is a reminder that, when cornered, the terrorists turn their bestial wrath on those unable to protect themselves. It underlines the urgent need to turn the small victories into big ones.