I spent most of the last year reporting two sieges, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, which finally ended with the decisive defeat of Isis. This was the most important event in the Middle East in 2017, though people are already beginning to forget how dangerous the Isis caliphate was at the height of its power and even in its decline. Not so long ago, its “emirs” ruled an area in western Iraq and eastern Syria which was the size of Great Britain and Isis-inspired or organised terrorists dominated the news every few months by carrying out atrocities from Manchester to Kabul and Berlin to the Sahara. Isis retains the capacity to slaughter civilians – witness events in Sinai and Afghanistan in the last few weeks – but no longer has its own powerful centrally organised state which was what made it such a threat.
The defeat of Isis is cheering in itself and its fall has other positive implications. It is a sign that the end may be coming to the cycle of wars that have torn apart Iraq since 2003, when the US and Britain overthrew Saddam Hussein, and Syria since 2011, when the uprising started against President Bashar al-Assad. So many conflicts were intertwined on the Iraqi and Syrian battlefields – Sunni against Shia, Arab against Kurd, Iran against Saudi Arabia, people against dictatorship, US against a variety of opponents – that the ending of these multiple crises was always going to be messy. But winners and losers are emerging who will shape the region for decades to come. Over-cautious warnings that Isis and al-Qaeda may rise again or transmute into a new equally lethal form underestimate the depth of the changes that have happened over the last few years. The Jihadis have lost regional support, popular Sunni sympathy, the element of surprise, the momentum of victory while their enemies are far stronger than they used to be. The resurrection of the Isis state would be virtually impossible.