By Anthony Codesman, Center for Strategic & International Studies

It is natural for most reporting and military analysis to focus on every major development in the daily fighting against ISIS, but the fight to liberate Mosul and Raqqa is only one part of a much longer and more complicated struggle that may well go on for years. While some in the White House staff do talk of “victory” in Mosul—and even Raqqa—before President Obama leaves office, virtually no one actually involved in shaping U.S. and Iraqi strategy believes this is possible. The main body of ISIS forces in Mosul may be defeated, but this will only be a prelude to what will be a different and much longer fight.

Senior U.S. officers and officials have warned publicly for months that clearing Mosul is likely to be followed by a long period of fighting with elements of ISIS that have dispersed into the Iraqi countryside, hidden in the city, and/or stage out of Syria. They have made it clear that unless ISIS actually collapses, Iraqi security forces are going to have to secure the city over a long period of time, and will have to do so at a time when Iraq will be seeking to return internally displaced persons (IDPs) to Mosul and other cities and villages in western Iraq, and to rebuild these cities and villages. U.S. officials have warned that some ISIS fighters may disperse to other countries and carry out acts of terrorism, but that other ISIS fighters will try to attack targets throughout Iraq—and that such attacks are already underway.

It is equally clear that the fight against ISIS in Mosul and Iraq cannot be separated from the fight against ISIS in Raqqa and Syria. The long border between Syria and Iraq is almost impossible to secure against infiltrators, and there are many routes that are relatively easy to use to smuggle in arms and even heavy weapons. The greater the freedom ISIS has in operating out of Syria, the greater the challenge to liberating Mosul and the rest of Iraq, as well as to any effort to create a Syrian rebel presence that will not be tied to other extremist movements, and that can check or contain the pro-Assad forces.

The sooner ISIS comes under pressure in both Iraq and Syria, the more likely the broader threat to Mosul can be contained, and the more likely it is that some option can be developed to counter Assad and extremist rebel forces like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Al Nusra Front). Equally, with more pressure on ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, the smaller the chance that many ISIS fighters in both Iraq and Syria will join other Islamist extremist groups if the central leadership of ISIS ever does collapse.

Here, it is important to note that the U.S. and European focus on ISIS ignores the fact that most databases on terrorism indicate that ISIS was responsible for less than 15% of the terrorist incidents in the Middle East and North Africa in 2015, and that extremist violence has risen in many other areas where it is linked to al Qaeda—Yemen being all to clear a case in point. The struggle against extremism and terrorism will go on long after any credible form of victory in Mosul or Raqqa.

And, this is only part of the story. It has become all too clear that the Abadi government in Iraq desperately needs to both show it can drive most ISIS forces out of Iraq—a visible sign of victory—and to provide added stability that it can use to try to rebuild the large Sunni areas that suffered under ISIS in western Iraq, to work out some form of federalism or settlement that can create a stable relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and to allow the central Iraqi government emerge as a force than can limit outside influence from Iran and Turkey.

The actual fighting is only part of the challenge that Iraq faces. As recent World Bank and IMF reports make clear, the cost of the fighting and the 50% cut in petroleum export revenues have left Iraq nearly bankrupt. Iraq desperately needs resources and time to rebuild whole cities and much of the economy in western Iraq, to deal with youth unemployment well in excess of 25%, to reduce low-level sectarian fighting between Arab and Kurd and Sunni and Shiite, and to control Shi’ite militias tied to Iran. All threaten a fragile and deeply divided Iraqi central government. “Winning” in Mosul offers no guarantees that the Iraqi central government can handle what comes after, but ISIS staying in Mosul offers a far higher likelihood that the Iraqi central government cannot be united, reformed, or hold the country together.

The situation in Syria is even worse. Despite what might have been possible in the past, there are no good options now. The Assad regime, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia seem likely to take full control of western Syria—where some 75% of Syria’s total population resides. The Arab rebels are deeply divided and the more extreme Sunni elements dominate the fighting against the Assad regime. Turkey seems to be drifting towards strong man rule based on a fighting against its Kurds and those in Syria and Iran, and U.S. and allied Arab leverage is limited and uncertain.

It is far from clear whether the United States can support a mix of Syrian forces that is still largely Kurdish and has only limited Syrian Arab elements in the fight to liberate Raqqa without provoking some mix of Turkish, Russian, Iranian, or Assad response. It is clear that time will not make things better, that leaving the Syrian Kurds without support will cost the United States that only credible ally it has in Syria, and that it cannot hope to build a moderate Arab force without some core to support, and some sign it can win actually victories.

If the United States is to have a serious hope of rebuilding its position in the Middle East, it cannot wait to put pressure on ISIS in Raqqa. If the next Administration is to have even bad and uncertain options, action is needed now. At the same time, no one should have any illusions. Raqqa and ISIS are only a small part of a Syrian crisis that has destroyed much of its economy, divided the country into armed factions, and where almost all of the killing of civilians—nearly 90% or more—has come from fighting between the Assad regime and Arab rebel factions, not from the fighting with ISIS. Mosul, Raqqa and ISIS—and even Iraq—are only the prelude to a struggle in the rest of Syria that may well last for years, and has already become a tragedy involving over 12 million people.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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