Key words: Iraq, ISIS, Syria
By Elijah J. Magnier – @ejmalrai
The northern Iraqi city of TalAfar, in Nineveh province, west of Mosul and close to the Syrian border, has been liberated from the “Islamic State” group (ISIS) in less than eight days. This fast defeat of ISIS is a clear indication that the Iraqi security forces have become sufficiently experienced in battling the terrorist group and have become knowledgeable in its fighting style. Moreover, it also indicates that most of the ISIS fighters and leadership had left the city before the battle of Mosul began (and during the battle), knowing that their turn would come. TalAfar had also supplied Mosul with many fighters during the biggest battle, in the (miscalculated) hope that the city itself, al-Hadbaa’ (Mosul) would not fall.
ISIS’s territory in Iraq is reduced to less than 25%, with few cities remaining under its control: Hawija (next to be liberated), Ana, Rawa and al-Qaem on the Iraqi-Syrian borders, where the largest assembly of ISIS is recorded. All militants escaping from Iraq and Syria are indeed gathering in the triangle of the Iraqi desert of al-Anbar together with the semi Syrian desert of al-Badiya, the home of ISIS for over a decade (the time when ISIS was still called al-Qaeda in Iraq).
The main question remains: is ISIS’s time finally coming to an end?
It is clear that ISIS will lose all cities under its control in Iraq and Syria in the coming months (2017-2018). Nevertheless, its presence in the desert will remain and sleeper cells will be present in cities (not only in the Middle East but also around the world). ISIS will maintain its capability to hit and run against isolated military positions between the two borders without necessarily achieving any strategic objective but just to say: I am still alive.
But ISIS seems to be showing real changes in its behaviour, adopting a “new policy”. This is the first time ISIS surrendered to what its militants consider a “Rafidi” (rejectionist Shia, eligible to be killed at site) and to release a Shia Hezbollah militant. ISIS, in the past, rejected the exchange of Iranian prisoners and corpses despite the readiness of Tehran to pay anything for their release and recovery. Moreover, ISIS used to order its militants to fight to the death or else ISIS itself would kill them if they left their battle position- regardless of the motive. Today, ISIS accepts the surrender of 335 militants and over 620 of their families in exchange for seven Hezbollah and one Iranian corpses, and one prisoner live- the same ISIS that refused all offers from Jordan to release its pilot Maaz al-Kassasbah and preferred to burn him alive.
Moreover, ISIS ordered the retrieval of 1800 militants and commanders from TalAfar before the attack because of its need to conserve human resources: it didn’t order these to fight to the death as in previous battles. Also, ISIS wanted to avoid the destruction of TalAfar city, similar to what happened in Mosul, maybe with the hope that the group could return one day to these Iraqi cities, having learned from its mistakes and in order to continue its armed struggle.
ISIS, on the other hand, is training very young adolescents, and showing off about these, to send a clear message to the world that it will continue fighting through generations to come. For that, the group is imposing the use of its own currency (Golden, Silver and Copper Dinars) in the cities under its control, exchanging it with local currencies and dollars. This move aims to prepare for the era after its defeat in main cities in Iraq and Syria to hide its money. This is very similar to what Saddam Hussein did in 2003 during the US occupation of the country: no wonder, there are many ex-Baathist officers among ISIS leadership.
ISIS needs money because its resources are drying up with such small territories under its control- fewer taxes to collect but also less money to spend. ISIS made many fatal errors during its bloody adventure, exaggerating by killing Muslims who disagreed with its style, ruling and extremism. They have caused the destruction of all Sunni Iraqi cities they occupied. These are the same cities ISIS hopes to return one of these days in the future!
In fact ISIS grew up in these Iraqi cities in the north and east of the country where it found large moral and financial support from the local population. Documents reveal that Iraqi officials contributed in financing ISIS throughout the years, prior to 2014, with at least $125 million from government aid to provinces that was diverted to the group. These are:
24 billion 731 million Dinars from al-Anbar
6 billion 93 million dinars from Diyala
24 billion 329 million dinars from Salahoddine
65 billion from Nineveh governor
Moreover, ISIS was collecting monthly taxes from the Sunni cities he was operating in (before 2014): inhabitants offered monthly contributions and shops paid regular fees depending on their business. The money was clearly offered to ISIS to fight the central government in Baghdad.
Today, Baghdad is determined to prevent the return of ISIS. But the problem remains if the Sunni population is still willing to support ISIS, offer shelter to its militants and pay again the monthly fees, enabling it to grow again. The immediate forthcoming years will carry the answer.