Americans have gotten accustomed to the idea that there won’t be any victory parades in the war on terrorism. When you’re fighting against an ideology and set of tactics rather than a specific group, the enemy is never defeated; it just transforms. Still, it’s striking how little fanfare has accompanied the capture of Raqqa by U.S.–backed forces.
Raqqa was once ISIS’s de facto capital and the last major city under its control. Capturing it has been a major goal of two U.S. administrations for three years now, ever since President Obama told the country in Sept. 2014 that he was committing the U.S. military to “degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” President Trump also vowed to “utterly destroy” ISIS and suggested during his campaign that he had a new strategy for doing so that he couldn’t talk about. The strategy turned out to be pretty much the same as Obama’s—a combination of air power and support for Kurdish and Arab fighters on the ground—but with less micromanagement or attention to avoiding civilian casualties. The strategy pursued by both administrations has culminated in the retaking of ISIS’s capital city by its allies this week. The group now holds just a small pocket of territory in Eastern Syria and on the Iraqi border, where it is also losing ground.
Trump loves to brag, and has frequently talked up the progress made against ISIS under his watch, most recently boasting, nonsensically, at the United Nations, that “our country has achieved more against ISIS in the last eight months than it has in many, many years combined.” So it’s a little weird that he hasn’t made more out of the capture of the enemy’s capital. It may be that he’s just distracted. Or too busy tweeting. Or perhaps, in a rare moment of foresight, he or his advisors realize that dancing on the grave of the caliphate would be a profoundly bad idea.
On Nov. 12, 2015, Obama declared that thanks to U.S. efforts, ISIS had been “contained.” The next day, gunmen loyal to the group killed 120 people in Paris. Obama had been referring to the group’s territorial gains, but the remark still stung: The U.S. public is ultimately less concerned with how much Iraqi real estate ISIS controls than by whether their cities are at risk of attack. This may be part of the reason why the U.S. response to Raqqa has been subdued. A declaration of victory would ring pretty hollow the next time one of ISIS’s supporters blows himself up or opens fire on a crowd somewhere in the United States or Europe. And there’s every reason to believe that will happen again, caliphate or no. As a New York Times feature noted today, ISIS leaders have been preparing for a loss of their territorial base for some time now and will likely return to an emphasis on guerilla tactics and terrorist attacks.
There are a few more reasons why it’s hard to celebrate the end of ISIS as a territorial power. First, the utter devastation inflicted by four months of warfare on Raqqa—like Mosul before it—makes any talk of “liberation” ring a bit hollow.
Second, ISIS has gone global, with active franchises in Libya, Sinai, Yemen, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, somewhat reducing the importance of its original core in Syria.
Third, we’ve been here before. U.S. “surge” troops working with local Sunni tribes ousted al-Qaida in Iraq from the areas it controlled a decade ago, only to see the group re-emerged under a new name—the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—after the Americans pulled out.
Fourth, events of recent days have underlined the extent to which the larger conflict in Syria and Iraq is not ending, but just entering a new phase. Iraq could be on the brink of a new civil war as government forces seize territory, including the city of Kirkuk, from Kurdish forces, sending thousands of Kurdish civilians fleeing. On the Syrian side of the border, there’s risk of violence between Turkish-backed forces and the Kurdish YPG, who make up the bulk of the force that retook Raqqa. And the presence of Hezbollah and other Iran-backed Shiite militias also threatens to antagonize local Sunnis and draw Israel further into the conflict. Meanwhile, al-Qaida–linked insurgents have consolidated control of Syria’s Idlib province and may be in position to make something of a comeback, having benefited from several years of ISIS taking the heat off them.
All this is to say that we may soon look back on the last three years as a relatively simple period in which the mutually antagonistic actors in Syria and Iraq were at least united by one common enemy: ISIS.
A final reason why the culmination of the territorial war against ISIS feels so anticlimactic can be found in a story that has gotten far more attention this week: Trump’s ham-handed response to the killing of four Green Berets by al-Qaida–linked militants in Niger—a place that most Americans were probably unaware that U.S. troops were operating in until this month. The fact that the timing and tenor of the president’s call to the men’s families has gotten far more attention than what U.S. troops were doing fighting in Niger in the first place is a good indication of the extent to which Americans have simply come to assume that their military is engaged in an endless, ongoing battle with terrorists in dozens of countries around the world.
At its height, ISIS controlled a wide swath of Iraq and Syria that was home to around 10 million people—a population the size of Sweden. Within that territory, the group enforced its austere brand of Islamic law through beheadings, stonings, and crucifixion. It carried out genocide against religious minorities and institutionalized the practice of sex slavery, including of children. The fact that large civilian populations are no longer living under ISIS rule is undoubtedly a good thing. But U.S. troops are going to remain in Iraq—and probably to a lesser and more secretive extent in Syria too—even if ISIS eventually loses its last inch of territory. Given that, the recapture of this city doesn’t feel like much of a milestone.