On October 31, Iraqi government forces finally entered Mosul, the last major stronghold in Iraq occupied by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). The battle marked a decisive shift in a two-year offensive to erode ISIS’ stubborn hold over swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. Retaking Iraq’s second-largest city, which ISIS overran in June 2014, would greatly damage the group’s legitimacy, weaken the viability of its so-called caliphate, and cut off its access to the $425 million in currency reserves it stole from the city’s central bank. Now, with the city almost surrounded and Iraqi forces entering its eastern suburbs, Mosul is not far from liberation.
But as U.S. coalition forces begin their advance on Raqqa, the self-declared capital of ISIS’ caliphate in Syria, a far more complex fight awaits them. Unlike in Iraq, where Washington supports the Shiite central government in Baghdad and uses air strikes to back the Shiite militias, in Syria the United States lacks reliable ground forces. Few are currently motivated to fight ISIS. President Bashar al-Assad does not want to destroy the caliphate before it knocks out more moderate rebel fighters in the field, such as elements of the Free Syrian Army around Aleppo, who could be considered alternatives to Assad’s rule. The Syrian government and its Russian allies would prefer the West choose between Assad and ISIS, knowing that it would pick the former. It is no surprise, then, that for months the Russian air campaign in Syria has overwhelmingly targeted anti-Assad rebels rather than ISIS.
The Syrian opposition knows that the United States has no stomach for removing Assad. But for them, Assad and his Russian allies are an immediate, mortal threat to their survival in a way that ISIS, now on the defensive, no longer is. Should ISIS be destroyed, moreover, there is no evidence that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama would confront Russia over its air strikes or provide the rebels sufficient arms to defend
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