ISIS’s reign of terror is rapidly coming to an end. Within a matter of days, the jihadist menace that shocked the world for years with its pathological sadism will lose its final strongholds within the Syrian city of Raqqa. It has taken 5 months of bloody struggle but the de facto capital of the Islamic State will soon be entirely in the hands of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Across the border in Iraq, the process of rebuilding the devastated city of Mosul is underway after its liberation from the so-called caliphate in July. There are still areas of ISIS control in both Iraq and Syria, but the jihadists have lost over 60 percent of the territory they once held. Their sources of funding are drying up, hostile forces surround them, and ISIS can no longer count on tens of thousands of recruits to flood into Syria to replenish their ranks.
The U.S. and its allies have effectively beaten the Islamic State. While the process has been slow and riddled with setbacks and restarts, this is a substantial accomplishment. In 2014, ISIS seized Mosul in a blitzkrieg and was threatening to march on the Kurdish city of Erbil.
On the Syrian front, the world was faced with the lose-lose choice of a collapsing Assad regime and an ascendant ISIS. Now, ISIS’s leadership is on the run, and its fighters are surrendering by the hundreds. Not every militant wants to be among the last suicide bombers for a crumbling caliphate.
To be sure, the anti-ISIS campaign is not over yet, and will continue at a lesser level throughout 2018. On the Iraqi side of the border, there are still pockets of ISIS control such as Hawija to the north of Baghdad, and the region in and around al Qaim on the Iraq-Syria border. In Syria, there are still considerable pieces of territory in the center and east of the country where ISIS retains control. But barring a highly unlikely battlefield reversal, ISIS as a state building enterprise is in its death throes.
For those near the frontlines of Iraq and Syria, there will be little if any time for celebration. A prolonged counterinsurgency operation will be necessary to keep the pressure on remnants of ISIS, and recent history shows that mass casualties attacks will threaten the region long after the black banners of Jihad have been taken down from every town center. And with Kurdish independence looming in Iraq, and a resurgent, Iran and Russia-backed Assad regime in Syria, there are plenty of ways the security situation could rapidly deteriorate apart from ISIS activity.
As for the Islamic State’s next steps, it will likely turn to its affiliates around the globe, from Nigeria to the Philippines, hoping for another Jihadist break out. While the concept of an “Islamic State” built upon conquest and terror has taken a hit with the ongoing elimination of ISIS, it is only a matter of time before Islamic hardliners overthrow a regime and enforce a hyper-militant form of Islamic supremacy again.
The U.S. and its allies must do everything in their power to avert that outcome. As we assess lessons learned from ISIS’s rise to power, with its wreckage of two countries and hundreds of thousands of casualties, we are forced to face up to major mistakes of the past.
The Obama White House’s first foreign policy priorities were an at-all-costs Iran deal, and avoiding unfavorable comparisons to Bush-era interventions. Those domestic political calculations came at the price of many lives lost in Iraq and Syria.
After years of half-measures and failures, President Obama found a pathway to roll back ISIS in the latter half of his second term. It was the Trump administration that seized the opportunity and accelerated the anti-ISIS fight so there would be no more delays. Now, the caliphate’s days are truly numbered.
The civilized world has won this battle against the Islamic State, but it is part of a much larger, multi-generational war. Until radical Islam is eradicated in the Middle East and beyond, all celebrations of victory will be temporary, and all advances against jihad subject to reversal.
Buck Sexton is a political commentator, national security analyst and host of the nationally syndicated radio program, “Buck Sexton with America Now.” He is a former CIA officer in the Counterterrorism Center, appears frequently on Fox News Channel and CNN and has been a guest radio show host for Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. Follow Buck on Twitter @BuckSexton.