A photograph made available on May 30, 2016, shows Kurdish Peshmerga forces moving in Mufti village after it was recaptured from Islamic State, in the Kurdistan region, north Iraq, on May 29, 2016.
(Andrea Dicenzo, EPA)
Along the Euphrates, the waterway that gave life to Fertile Crescent civilizations stretching as far back as Babylon, two cities — Raqqa in Syria and Fallujah in Iraq — face military campaigns bent on further eroding the Islamic State's dreams of a Middle East caliphate.
Both operations are sure to be complicated, lengthy endeavors. Civilian tolls are likely to be devastatingly high, and after all the fighting is done, there may not be much left standing in either city.
The cities also represent major moments in a two-year war against Islamic State. Raqqa is the group's de facto capital and a key supply hub. Fallujah, the first stronghold Islamic State established in Iraq, perches perilously on the doorstep of Iraq's capital, Baghdad. They are not, however, the ultimate prize. That distinction belongs to Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. Here's why:
Retaking Mosul would rob Islamic State of the largest urban area under its control. Overrun by the group's militants in June 2014, Mosul was a conquest that, more than any other, forced the world to take notice of this new, grave threat. It's a city of 1 million and an economic hub that made the militant group vastly wealthier, thanks to the millions of dollars that it swiped from Mosul's central bank branch. Mosul's capture also gave Islamic State a materiel bonanza — rather than stand and fight, legions of Iraqi soldiers and police left behind their Kalashnikovs, U.S.-supplied Humvees and armored vehicles and fled.
Tackling Fallujah, while important, has sidetracked at least temporarily the bid to kick Islamic State out of Mosul. Iraq had started building up its forces outside of Mosul in anticipation of a battle royale to retake the city this year. But with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi now switching the focus to Fallujah, that buildup has stalled. If the battle for Fallujah drags on, President Barack Obama may have to shelve his goal of nearing the recapture of Mosul by the end of the year.
In Fallujah, the challenge isn't just about entrenched Islamic State fighters geared up for street-by-street, house-by-house warfare. Alongside Iraqi soldiers and police converging on the predominantly Sunni Muslim city are fighters from Iran-backed Shiite militias, which have a long, post-Saddam history of persecuting the country's minority Sunni population.
Washington would rather see the Shiite militias sidelined, in part because of their allegiance to Tehran. But given the ramshackle shape the Iraqi army is in, Abadi's Shiite government leans heavily on help from these Shiite militias. The U.S. can only hope that the militias will stick to their pledge to remain on the outskirts of Fallujah and let Iraqi soldiers do the dirty work inside the city.
Raqqa has a similar snag. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces advancing toward the Arab-majority city are made up primarily of Kurdish fighters. If and when the Kurds retake Raqqa, someone will need to govern the city. And the Arab population in Raqqa isn't likely to welcome Kurdish overseers. The bid for Raqqa will work only if Arab fighters in large numbers join the invading force. The U.S. has roughly 250 special operations troops in Syria tasked with training Arab fighters for the Raqqa offensive. They'll need to fare better than Obama's failed $500 million mission to train and equip Syrian rebels: Last fall, Washington learned that U.S.-trained Syrian fighters had been handing over vehicles and ammunition to al-Qaida's arm in Syria.
Iraqi troops are pouring into the rural terrain of Falluja's southern city limits.
... preparing for what will likely be one of the fiercest battles ever fought against Islamic State.
The Obama administration may have to resign itself to waiting for Raqqa and Fallujah to play out before the march into Mosul starts. And even if Mosul eventually is retaken, something else has to happen in Iraq to thwart any kind of Islamic State comeback:
The backdrop for the militant group's sweep through northern Iraq in 2014 was the Shiite-led government's systematic marginalization of the country's Sunni Muslims. Alienated by Baghdad, Sunnis in the country's north either refused to resist the Islamic State incursion or supported it. So far, Abadi has shown no signs of including Sunnis in government in any significant way. Involving Sunnis in Iraqi governance, however, is paramount to a lasting strategy to defeat Islamic State — and more broadly, to long-term stabilization of one of the most important nations in the Middle East.