The fall of Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, is unarguably an important politico-military milestone, albeit long overdue. Nonetheless, ISIS, a metastasized version of Al Qaeda, remains a global terrorist threat, and prospects for Middle Eastern stability and security for America’s interests and allies are still remote.
Even as ISIS was losing Raqqa, Iraqi regular armed forces and Shia militia were attacking Kirkuk and its environs, held by Iraqi Kurds since June 2014, when ISIS burst out of Syria and seized large swathes of territory from Baghdad’s collapsing army.
The battles for Raqqa and Kirkuk reveal much about the mistakes in U.S. strategy for defeating ISIS, and the consequences of not supporting Iraqi Kurdish efforts to establish an independent state. The two battles are closely related, proving again the historical reality that the Middle East is replete with multi-party, multi-dimensional conflicts, and contains more troublemakers than peacemakers.
Most importantly for Washington, Raqqa and Kirkuk demonstrate that Tehran’s malign regime is on the march, while American policy stands in disarray, even while President Trump rightly condemned Iran’s continued regional belligerency and support for global terrorism. How this came to be is a lesson in bureaucracy. Existing policies, on auto-pilot as always when new presidents take office, especially when Republicans replace Democrats, persisted after January 20, without being subjected to searching review and modification.