This will be remembered as the year the Islamic State group’s ultra-violent statehood experiment was terminated, but Iraq and Syria are now left staring at ruined cities and daunting challenges.
The Jihadist group lost its two main hubs, Mosul in Iraq and Raqa in Syria, earlier this year and is now only clinging to the dregs of a “caliphate” that spanned territory the size of Britain three years ago. The proto-state shrank all year as a hail of airstrikes conducted by Iraq with its US-led allies and Syria with its main Russian backer paved the way for an inexorable territorial reconquest.
This month, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that for the first time in four years IS controlled no significant territory in Iraq. In neighbouring Syria, some work remains to be done, but IS holds only scattered and isolated pockets.
In Iraq, the West threw its weight behind Abadi, who has defied the odds to keep his seat and gain internal credibility as he steered the country through three years of anti-IS war. The costly military fightback was also a chance to rebuild an Army whose collapse in Mosul played a large part in the lightning expansion of the IS caliphate in 2014.
“Daesh [Islamic State] is finished from a military point of view but not as a terrorist organisation... we must remain in a permanent state of alert,” said Ahmed al-Assadi, spokesman for the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary organisationthat had a major role in the war.
The status of the Hashed, which is dominated by Shiite militia groups whose loyalty is more to Tehran than Baghdad, will be one of the greatest challenges for Iraq in the coming months. The country will also have to inject life back into Sunni cities that have been extensively destroyed, including the second city Mosul, Baiji, Ramadi, Sinjar and Fallujah.
Failure to do so quickly, observers say, would give the remnants of IS – or its next incarnation – a chance to emerge from the desert canyons where they are hiding and thrive afresh on the back of renewed sectarian discord.
Syrian cities such as Aleppo, Raqa, Homs and others also need extensive reconstruction. President Bashar al- Assad is much less palatable to the international community than Abadi, who enjoys good relations with the West as well as with Iran and other neighbours. But while IS’s final military defeat in Syria is in no doubt, the war there is not yet over and large-scale military operations against anti-regime forces are still under way.