IT is, indeed, welcome news that the militant Islamic State group has been successively losing territory it once controlled in Syria and Iraq.

The Iraqi city of Mosul was liberated in July, and Mayadeen in Syria was freed some days ago; the recapture of the Syrian city of Raqqa this week — once considered the ‘capital’ of the brutal, self-styled ‘caliphate’ — comes as the latest major blow to the terrorist movement.

While the Syrian and Iraqi governments have liberated much of the territory, Raqqa was freed by the US-backed, mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. Taking advantage of the chaos unleashed by the Syrian civil war, IS swept through large swathes of Syria and Iraq, unleashing a reign of terror upon the territories and people under its bloody rule.

However, concerted efforts by two distinct coalitions — one led by the Syrian state along with its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies; and the other under the leadership of the US and its Arab allies — as well as the Iraqi government have now put the terrorists of IS to flight, as they abandon one town after the other to regroup elsewhere.

Explore: PHOTO ESSAY: THE BATTLE FOR RAQQA

However, it would be premature to proclaim victory against the militants at this juncture.

For one, IS still clings on to bits of territory in both Iraq and Syria. Until all areas are firmly within state control, the threat from the outfit will remain.

Secondly, while until now IS and its opponents mostly squared off on the battlefield or engaged in gritty urban combat, after losing much of the territory under their control, the militants will diffuse and may well resort to a familiar tactic: asymmetric warfare and acts of terrorism targeting non-combatants.

That is why states must monitor the battle zone and ensure that ‘jet-black’ terrorists do not escape and are brought to justice.

However, care must be taken to respect the human rights of non-combatants who were forced to live under IS rule. Moreover, since the SDF, a mostly Kurdish force, has been at the forefront of Raqqa’s liberation, care must be taken to not carve out a semi-autonomous statelet in Syria that challenges the territorial integrity of that country.

It should be noted that while gains have been made against terrorism, these will be undone if ethnic or sectarian fronts are opened after the defeat of the extremists. The prime goal of all actors in Syria and Iraq should be the defeat of IS and those of its ilk.

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2017

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