It is a truth universally acknowledged in the realm of international relations that any gap left unchecked in a security vacuum will be filled by competing forces. This is exactly what is happening, and has already happened in northern Syria. With Donald Trump announcing the complete and total withdrawal of all United States forces from Syria, others, mainly Russian-backed Syrian forces will be poised to gain the most from the unfolding chaos. The United States backed Kurdish forces now left to fend off for themselves against the vastly superior Turkish military, have little choice but to align themselves with Syrian leader Bashar-Al-Assad’s forces in hopes of retaining any sovereignty. This abandonment of American leadership fits a growing trend long underway under President Trump’s leadership, that has seen America give up its position as the leader and a bulwark for stable international order.
Exploding car bombs and ill-advised U.S. airstrikes have demolished the streets of what was once the proud city of Mosul, ISIS’s last major stronghold in Iraq. What remains is a war zone and one that ISIS cannot claim ownership over for much longer. As the American-backed coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish forces inch ever closer to its goal of recapturing the city, the Islamic State’s worldwide ambitions appear headed toward an impasse. The integrity of its Northern Iraqi caliphate is waning as it lies besieged amid the narrow alleyways and IED-strewn choke points of western Mosul.Its forces have employed increasingly destructive defense tactics that threaten both the anti-ISIS coalition and the city’s own residents through its clawing and foot-dragging “scorch-the-earth” exit. Losing Mosul spells strategic and symbolic doom for the caliphate’s goal of uniting the world under extremist Muslim rule. Fitttingly, ISIS’s metaphorical sun dims exactly where the group rose to prominence two years ago: in the shadow of Mosul’s Great Mosque of Al-Nuri. Previously known for its historical significance and as a center of learning, Mosul became the heart of the Islamic State’s spread across the Middle East when the extremist group defeated Iraqi Army ground forces in 2014 and took possession of the city. At the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in the center of Mosul, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed ISIS to be a global caliphate and installed himself as caliph. This has been subsequently followed by over two years of rule under ISIS’s extremist interpretation of sharia law. It was at this point that ISIS became a credible threat and one that fellow terrorist organizations like Boko Haram began allying themselves with. The city has served as a base for their operations, in conjunction with the caliphate’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa, from which ISIS controls its territories in the two countries. The looting of a central bank for $425 million dollars and profit from Mosul’s lucrative oil fields have helped to fund the Islamic State’s weapons purchases and recruitment of new members. When the Iraqi army began coordinating with Kurdish forces in 2016 to converge on Mosul,it took over 3 months for the coalition to recapture the eastern side of the city. The Western Mosuli campaign finally appears to be in its final stages after seven months of heavy combat, with coalition forces now pushing into the last occupied districts. Iraqi Lt Gen Othman al-Ghanim recently predicted that the coalition could completely overtake the city in a matter of days.
Despite the recent positive developments, ISIS saw its destructive agenda completed and found a surprising ally through the questionable actions of the U.S. military. On March 17, a U.S. airstrike allegedly decimated buildings in hopes of helping coalition forces oust ISIS from its cover within the city. Over 150 civilians were killed in a single strike, making it one of the most fatal in U.S. history in terms of civilian casualties. Such casualties caused by U.S. intervention in the Middle East have shown time and time again to breed further extremism, feeding directly into ISIS’s anti-Western rhetoric and call to arms. There were never official designations over what caused the building containing these civilians to collapse, but U.S. military forensic units have strong conflicts of interests in investigating their own actions. Some within the U.S. defense sphere blame ISIS for blowing up the building and herding civilians inside in order to frame American forces. Indeed, ISIS has trapped civilians inside buildings to deter or incriminate American air support since then, but the anti-ISIS coalition is now wise to the ploy. Beyond the threat of U.S. bombings, the lives of common citizens are further endangeredby ISIS’s guerilla tactics like the use of humans shields and the holding of civilian hostages. Aid to the city can scarcely get in without the threat of appropriation by ISIS. Additionally, the acceptance of Mosuli refugees runs the risk of harboring fleeing militants in disguise.
The offensive has been a tactical nightmare for the allied coalition. ISIS snipers, sarin gas, incessant car bombs and an intensified media spotlight have contributed to slowing the allie’s advance in Mosul to a hesitant crawl. When anti-ISIS forces reclaimed parts of the city that had been previously under the Islamic State’s control, they discovered holes created between houses and tunnels beneath the streets that allowed personnel and supplies to move without aerial detection. The allied forces also discovered a garage which specialized in outfitting vehicles for suicide bombings, altering them to be bulletproof and avoid surveillance. These factors lead to difficult decisions regarding how much time and how many soldiers’ lives the coalition is willing to give up in order to capture Mosul. The respective cost in delaying progress, however, is larger still. ISIS has become more indiscriminate with its use of force as its defenses have failed. Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin reports that civilian collateral casualties per week are, “in the hundreds with evidence showing that’s increasing.”
Without Mosul, ISIS would be without its biggest source of prestige, economic support and coordination center. Control of Mosul is central to the group’s legitimacy as Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s jumping off point. The caliphate’s official title as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” would lose both its accuracy and its sense of attraction among certain circles due to the group’s inability to control any significant portion of Iraq. This would be a major hit to ISIS’s recruitment abilities, despite being counterbalanced by potential anti-American sentiment following the mass civilian airstrike.Without a means of bringing new recruits into the organization, the group’s influence would likely dwindle and dissipate. The group already lost control of the city’s oil fields earlier in the campaign. ISIS fighters have reportedly stopped receiving payment as the organization has run out of money. The extortion of civilians within Mosul, not uncommon in similar situations, is difficult when there are battles to fight and the city is essentially starved.
Mosul’s strategic position in Northern Iraq once made it invaluable in controlling the group’s territories in Northeastern Iraq and Northwestern Syria. The city’s close proximity to the Syrian border was useful in working in tandem with ISIS’s remaining major city and new de-facto capital in Raqqa, Syria. But what was once an advantage is now a liability, as the city’s position between the northern Kurds and southern Iraqis encouraged the formation of an opposing coalition that was otherwise unlikely. The loss of Mosul will shake the group’s very identity and serve as a huge blow to ISIS’s chances of establishing the globe-encompassing Islamic state that it seeks.
As the tides continue to tip in favor of the Iraqi coalition, the focus of these forces will soon turn towards Raqqa, where another offensive is already underway. There is much speculation over when ISIS may be defeated and what the terrorist group will look like in the aftermath of this defeat, but these estimates carry wild degrees of uncertainty. Halting ISIS’s caliphate goals isn’t likely to end the threat of terrorism that occasionally penetrates the West.If anything, ISIS grows harder to deal with as its extremist foreign fighters disappear back into their native populations and sow fundamentalism back home. The relative clarity of a defined battleground will soon be lost; a reality that the coalition is already preparing for. The next challenge after Mosul falls will be in identifying the enemy fleeing among the Mosuli refugees. Islamic State members have already begun abandoning Mosul in what appears to be an acknowledgement of defeat. They may resurface elsewhere in attempts to establish control in other parts of the Levant, land the group claims as its religious right. Increased terrorist activity may become a top priority due to a lack of having a solidified sphere of influence or they may simply refocus on resource acquisition as they regroup. What seems to be most certain, however, is that the loss of Mosul will spell the beginning of the end for ISIS’s sovereign state and will bring about the liberation of innocent civilians that have been starving and dying under ISIS’s oppressive rule.
Many residents of the continental United States lack a general awareness of the U.S.’s intricate colonial history and the people who continue to live under this specter of neocolonialism. This targets the peoples of the five inhabited national territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. For the peoples of these national territories, their life directions continue to be shaped by a series of 115-year-old cases known as the Insular Cases. At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. acquired new land possessions during its imperial pursuits and the question of what role these new territories would play remained unanswered. In the Insular Cases, the Supreme Court established that they would only be granted the most basic of rights because these “alien races” would not be able to understand Anglo-Saxon principles of law and society. For the “incorporated territories,” such as Arizona, that were still on the path to statehood, the Constitution applied in its entirety. For the “unincorporated territories,” however, these protections would not be extended largely in part because of their ethnoracial compositions. The patronizing and racist undertones of these decisions would set the tone for the U.S.’s historical and contemporary interactions with its territories.
Today, these populations lack visibility and still have not been truly incorporated into the United States. They can send delegates to the nominating conventions for the Democratic and Republican parties as well as participate in the presidential primary elections. They cannot, however, participate in the electoral college or general election. Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands all elect delegates to represent them in the House of Representative, but they are nonvoting members. These delegates only serve a symbolic purpose as nonvoting members of congress, so 4.1 million people are effectively barred from any real means of political representation. The blatantly prejudiced Insular Cases continue to reinforce the relations between the U.S. and these territories today.
The same judge that established the infamous “separate but equal” doctrine of racial separation in the Brown v. Board of Education delivered the decision in the first of the Insular Cases. While Brown v. Board would eventually be struck down with Plessy v. Ferguson, the Insular Cases continue to hold and have been cited in recent fights against the peculiar legal position of the U.S. territories. Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands all have birthright citizenship, but lack political representation. This is because from 1917 to 1986, U.S. congress passed individual measures which slowly conferred birthright citizenship onto the four other national territories, but American Samoans remain denied birthright citizenship. American Samoans are conferred with the legal status of “U.S. nationals” at birth and are barred from many career types and from political representation, as such. Earlier this year, five American Samoans brought a case for birthright citizenship against the United States to the US Court of Appeals where it was ruled that birthright citizenship does not extend to U.S. island territories, effectively expanding the antiquated, racially-biased case precedent of the Insular Cases. They filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court and many legal scholars are hoping that the SCOTUS grants this writ. If it is granted, the SCOTUS will order the lower court to send up the documents for judicial review. It is uncertain, however, at this point whether the Supreme Court will choose to take on this case because of its widespread implications for the interpretation of the 14th amendment in a political landscape, with a growing body advocating that the U.S. end birthright citizenship. The 14th amendment’s grant of birthright citizenship has slowly been expanded to the other national territories. Any new congressional or judicial orders regarding citizenship for American Samoans would be pushing against a political current that is slowly moving against the 14th amendment’s grant of citizenship to anyone born in U.S. soil or to U.S. citizen parents. The political salience of the citizenship debate is primarily fueled by anti-immigrant anxieties directed at the growing Hispanic/Latino population in the continental United States.
Still, the plights of those within the unincorporated territories demonstrates the ways in which neocolonialism continues to impact the lives of many people within the U.S. empire. With the Obama administration’s foreign policy “Pivot to Asia,” U.S. military presence in the region is growing and many old bases of our imperial past are re-opened and new bases are created. The pacific nations of our unincorporated territories have historically and contemporarily served as strategic geopolitical points in our military pursuits. The U.S. military occupies over 27 percent of Guam’s land mass. Both Guam and American Samoa “contribute a disproportionate share of military recruits but don’t receive veteran assistance commensurate with that effort.” Despite their more than even share within American expansionary and military efforts, these people continue to be denied even the most basic protections of citizenship. This sharply contrasts with the situations of many Filipino-Americans who gained citizenship or whose families gained citizenship through their military service. Paths to citizenship have been carved out or legislated on for many Asian and Pacific-Islander groups historically, but American Samoans continue to be relegated to the status of U.S. nationals, not citizens. As politically dispossessed peoples, the national territories continue to remain subjugated in the long-standing power dynamics. While we are supposedly gearing up to celebrate our shared history with the Asia-Pacific region and increase our geopolitical presence, will we continue to ignore those caught within the webs of our own imperialist past and present?