Islamic State: collapse on the battlefield

Thousands of foreign fighters returning to Europe and elsewhere will continue to pose a threat

Men suspected of being Islamic State fighters are searched at a security screening center near Kirkuk, Iraq. More than 1,000 militants turned themselves in after the latest in a string of humiliating defeats in Iraq and Syria. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/The New York Times

A series of battles in Iraq and Syria in recent weeks herald the collapse and defeat of Islamic State and the "caliphate" it set up in 2014, which destabilised these countries and terrorised the 10 million people they ruled over for three years. The battle for strategic Mosul took nine months of fighting by the Iraqi army supported by Kurdish Peshmerga troops with United States help. Last week the fall of Hawija in northeastern Iraq led to a mass surrender of Isis fighters. A similar battle continues in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

The audacious expansion of Isis from Raqqa into Iraq, and the capture of Mosul and surrounding oilfields, enabled it set up a jihadist state and recruit tens of thousands of fighters to its ranks. Having a territorial base proved seminal, allowing it to spread its message internationally while creating horrifying examples of torture, public executions, sex slavery, looting and destruction of antiquities and massacres of Yazidi Kurds. These atrocities took time to provoke a coherent international response. But that happened, and the military consequences are plain to see.

Whether these victories will transform the bleak political and social conditions facing Iraq and Syria is a huge question on which it is not possible to be as positive. Their problems arise from the reckless US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the regional response to the Arab uprisings of 2011. That sparked sectarian conflicts between Sunnis and Shias and intervention from competing powers rushing to protect authoritarian regimes from collapse.

Iraq faces an existential challenge from Kurdish demands for independence and a colossal task of reconstructing broken infrastructures and repairing relations with deeply alienated Sunni communities. The Syrian civil war is going Assad’s way in equally brutal fashion, backed up by Russian air power. The coordinated campaigns against Islamic State diverted international efforts from pursuing diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict. The country’s exhausted condition requires urgent attention.


While Isis-held territory is contracting dramatically, and the group is set to lose on the battlefield, it will probably morph into a guerrilla-style entity. The thousands of foreign fighters returning to Europe and elsewhere will continue to pose a threat for the foreseeable future. Recent bombing atrocities in Tehran and Manchester have been claimed by them and probably presage more to come. Their ideology and organisational base are likely to survive, even if their appeal wanes as a result of these defeats and the revelations about how they ruled. European governments must prepare for that. They must also redouble their efforts to help the region recover from these destructive wars, which have already sent millions of people their way for refuge.