Iraqi forces have liberated the town of Rawa, the last urban stronghold under ISIS control, the Iraqi government announced early this morning.
The liberation comes as ISIS forces have crumbled since losing Mosul in mid-July. Iraqi forces have had a string of rapid victories liberating Tal Afar, Hawija and Al Qaim in a short period of time over the last several months.
“Our heroic forces liberated Rawa district in a record time and continued to cleanse Jazeera desert and secure the Iraqi borders,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi posted on social media this morning. “The liberation of Rawa within hours reflects the strength and the great ability of our heroic armed forces.”
The urban area of Rawa fell to Iraqi forces within hours after security forces launched an operation to cleanse the town of ISIS fighters.
But, while the liberation is an “important milestone” for Iraqi forces, there is “still more to be done,” Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, told Military Times.
There are still pockets of ISIS fighters hiding out in the desert and in rural areas of Western Anbar, Dillon explained.
And Iraqi forces still have much work to do clearing explosive devices and weapons caches from recently liberated areas.
ISIS is not yet defeated in the region, Dillon warned. In Syria, the coalition estimates there are still 500 to 1,000 ISIS fighters in the border town of Abu Kamal. The town is currently encircled by Syrian regime forces.
Syrian regime forces backed by Russian airpower have struggled to liberate Abu Kamal and prematurely announced its liberation.
However, U.S.-backed Syrian fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, are just a stone’s throw away from the embattled Syrian border town, though they are operating on the eastern side of the Euphrates River, Dillon said.
SDF forces are also still clearing areas in and around the Omar oil fields. The Omar oil fields are the largest in Syria and were captured by SDF fighters in late October.
There are still 100 to 200 ISIS fighters in and around the Euphrates River Valley in Syria, Dillon added.
Though ISIS has lost most of its physical territory, the group is not down and out.
“I think ISIS at one time thought that they would operate a global network centered in the Caliphate, which is now having the life squeezed out of it,” Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the joint staff director, said at a televised Pentagon press briefing on Thursday.
“I believe at one time they thought they might have a lily pad in North Africa, particularly in Libya. That hasn’t worked out real well for them,” he added.
Since the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, U.S. forces have had a recent spate of attacks against ISIS fighters in Yemen, Somalia and Libya, a potential sign ISIS is attempting to reconstitute itself in other war zones and ungoverned territory outside of Iraq and Syria.
But the coalition is continuing to maintain pressure on the terror group.
“I think they had aspirational views of going to other places,” McKenzie said. “But I would tell you, because of the global coalition that we’ve assembled and the ability of those nations in these disparate areas of the world to operate effectively against ISIS when it arises. That plan has not been terribly successful for them.”
But ISIS isn’t just about a physical caliphate and an armed wing of zealous fighters; it is an ideology that can’t just be defeated with brunt military force. Al-Qaida didn’t collapse after the death of Osama Bin Laden; the group’s ideology continues to spread across the globe.
“I think where we need to pay a lot of attention is to their activities in the cyber domain and their ability to proselytize in that move, very dynamic arena and the potential for self-radicalization and inspire attacks really across the world that aren’t directly linked to geography,” McKenzie told reporters on Thursday.
The liberation of the last urban stronghold is an important milestone for Iraqi forces, but Iraqis understand the mission is not over as they begin to rebuild and pick up the pieces from what U.S. officials have routinely characterized as a foreign invasion from ISIS militants just a few years ago.
“ISIS has been surrendering without much of a fight since Tal Afar, which means they’re preserving some capabilities for the next insurgency,” Jennifer Cafarella, an expert on ISIS at the Institute for the Study of War, told Military Times. “We’ve solved none of the core problems that gave rise to ISIS. Conditions are still in its favor long term.”
Iraqi forces may announce the full liberation of the country sometime in the coming week, Dillon told Military Times, but that message may include a statement that ISIS is not defeated.