The rolling back of the Islamic State, a terrorist organisation which over the course of an unexpected blitzkrieg has carved out for itself a large if porous territory from the wreckage of the Syrian civil war and the instability of post-civil war Iraq, has been one of the big stories of 2017. It is a good story, if a bloody and tragic one for those caught up in the maelstrom of sickening violence. Most of ISIS’s territorial gains from 2013-14 have been now reversed, both in Iraq and in Syria, with its two largest occupied population centres, Mosul and Raqqa respectively, being re-taken following months of gruelling urban combat. The Islamic State, the entity as opposed to the philosophy or the terror franchise, is now clinging to a narrow strip of land along the Syrian course of the Euphrates. This is a success story mainly for the Kurds in Syria and for the Kurds and the Shia forces in Iraq, who after initial set-backs regrouped, held ground, and then rolled forth with counter-offensives. It is also a success story for the United States and its allies, who provided the training, military equipment and the crucial air support for the anti-ISIS forces.
It should be a massive international story, but it’s not. Yes, after all the years, there has been more than enough of the Iraq fatigue, followed by the Syria fatigue. Besides, so many other stories – the ongoing saga of the Trump presidency, the moral collapse of Hollywood, a string of deadly natural disasters, the adventures of the Rocket Man – are competing for our attention that the news from the Middle East tends to get lost amongst the background noise.
And yet. For several years, the rise and the continuing invincibility of ISIS have been the number one international news. Whole shelves of books have been written on the topic, not to mention an endless stream of reportage and commentary in print, online, and on the screen. The situation in Syria and the northern Iraq has been endlessly analysed, and all the gory details of the Islamic State’s misrule blasted all over the front pages. But not only that; the civil war in Syria (albeit where ISIS was only one of several major players) has sent millions of refugees across the international borders and scattered them from Jordan and Lebanon to Germany and Great Britain, resulting in even more media coverage than the military situation in Mesopotamia. On top of that, for the past few years, terrorist attacks throughout the Western world, either conducted or inspired by ISIS, have been a monthly, if not a weekly, occurrence; in turn generating more reporting and debate than the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis put together. The IS caliphate might have been shadowy, but it has been a shadow that cast its gloom over much of our daily lives and our regular media diets.
If that’s the case, shouldn’t what appears to be an ongoing military victory over arguably the most evil group of people at work in the world at the moment inspire more media coverage and more public rejoicing?
Call me a conspiracy theorist, yet I cannot but wonder if this story has been unfolding while Barack Obama was still in office, or if Hillary Clinton was the president today instead of Donald Trump, it would be difficult to escape the triumphalism emanating from the mainstream media. Some might argue that the victory over ISIS hasn’t got much to do with Trump either, him being a legatee of the groundwork lied during Obama’s second term, but that’s beside the point; firstly, because this is not about celebrating Trump, and secondly, because Obama himself, when he “got” Osama in May 2011, was himself a legatee of the seven years of manhunt conducted under Bush the 43, and that didn’t stop the endless media adulation of Obama. Just as being in the office for a little more than half a year did not prevent Bush the 43 from getting all the blame for not stopping the September 11 attacks, despite the fact that the rise of Al Qaeda and the planning for the attacks took place over most of the Clinton presidency.
There is no doubt that there are media double standards: those on the right of politics get blamed for everything that transpired on their predecessors’ watch and don’t get credit for the good news during their time in office, while those on the left of politics get all the glory and none of the blame, regardless of the timing of the events.
Again, this is not an argument for praising and celebrating Donald Trump, even if his adjustment on policy settings might have sped up the success on the ground in Syria and Iraq. I’m merely noting that the media will avoid covering too extensively a topic of otherwise significant public interest because to do so might allow “not their president” to bask in some reflected glory, and it might distract and detract from an otherwise overwhelmingly and relentlessly negative media coverage of the presidency.
Is there a good news from Iraq – and from Syria? Well, it depends who sits in the White House.
While I’m writing about the military defeat of ISIS, I’m not trying to be in any way triumphalist myself. The war against Islamism and Islamist terrorism is a whack-a-mole game played over the course of decades and all over the globe. Even if the Kurds and the Shias, with the American support, succeed in completely liberating Syria and Iraq from ISIS, this will not be the end of bloodshed in the Middle East and in the West. One group of fanatics might be defeated, but another one will likely rise under similar circumstances somewhere else along the “bleeding borders of Islam”. In addition, the thousands of ISIS survivors will continue to cause death and mayhem for years to come. In our own countries, there are already thousands of fighters who have sworn the allegiance to the Caliphate, not to mention tens of thousands of sympathisers inspired by the ideology. Raqqa might have been liberated, but it does not mean that London or Paris are now suddenly safe and at peace. You would note that Al Qaeda, the big bogeyman of the first decade of the century, has been relatively quiet over the past few years. This is partly because it has been hugely degraded through military and counter-terrorism means over the years; but also partly because so many recent franchisees of terror, who in the past might have claimed to be doing Al Qaeda’s work, have instead been attracted to ISIS’s successful formula. Following its military defeat, ISIS too will decline as a global terror force, but someone else will step into its bloody shoes down the track. We might have won a battle but the war goes on.
But all that is not the reason enough to ignore the good news and downplay the successes. Raqqa is free, even if Donald Trump is the president, and even if the news is on the bottom of page 24. Well done Kurds and well done America.