ISIS hit hard in Syria, Iraq
BEIRUT - The Islamic State (ISIS) has suffered critical setbacks in Syria and Iraq in recent days. The attacks by ISIS in Paris and elsewhere have provoked reprisals by France, the United States as well as Russia. But it is too early to venture whether the terrorist atrocities will bring about a dramatic intensification of the stumbling US-led military campaign against the group.
However, there appears to be a growing realisation that so far these operations have failed to counter ISIS and the Islamic caliphate it proclaimed in Syria and Iraq in June 2014 and that it is time to step up the battle, as French President François Hollande, who declared the November 13th slaughter in Paris an “act of war”, is doing.
“We have allowed ISIS to have a sanctuary in Syria and Iraq with too much time to plan and plot, too many resources to be directed against us,” US Representative Adam Schiff, D-Mass., the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, declared on November 15th.
It is not clear why ISIS expanded its operations outside Syria and Iraq. It has shown itself to be meticulously methodical and rarely acted impulsively but it has clearly pushed Europe, along with the Americans and the Russians, into stepping up the fight.
This is gathering momentum as ISIS’s enemies in Syria and Iraq have been pressing the group hard, despite Russia’s armed intervention in September to rescue the flagging regime of President Bashar Assad.
On November 13th, the same day Paris was hit by a gun-and-bomb rampage that killed 129 people and wounded hundreds more, Kurdish pershmerga troops in Iraq retook the northern city of Sinjar, seized by ISIS in mid-2014.
That was a rare victory by the Baghdad government and its allies against the jihadists and their self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate that runs from northern Syria to western Iraq.
The most important military aspect of driving ISIS out of the Yazidi city is that it cuts the group’s main supply line to Syria along Highway 47 running from Mosul, the centrepiece of ISIS’s Iraqi conquests, to Syria.
That could have a major impact on ISIS operations in northern Syria, radiating from its de facto capital, the city of Raqqa.
There, Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian fighters, backed by US air power, have been squeezing ISIS hard and gaining ground along the border in a bid to cut the caliphate in two between the strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa.
The Iraqi government, which is finally making some gains by its reconstructed army after it fell apart in ISIS’s 2014 blitzkreig, feels more confident about retaking Mosul, where ISIS proclaimed its caliphate.
A highly placed Iraqi official, with access to strategic planning, told The Arab Weekly that with Sinjar recaptured, there would be a further offensive against ISIS in the Saladin governorate, north of Baghdad, to drive the jihadists out of Ramadi and Mosul.
The recent spate of terrorist attacks claimed by or attributed to ISIS underline how the group has grown and developed into a potentially global threat. The atrocities also emphasised how the US-led military strategy to counter ISIS has remained largely unchanged and failed to cripple the jihadists.
But that may be changing. France has intensified its air strikes, which so far have not been particularly militarily significant, and is deploying its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, to the eastern Mediterranean to step up air strikes against ISIS in Syria.
That will dramatically boost France’s air capabilities, adding 26 fighters to the 12 jets currently based in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.
In Versailles, Hollande told French parliamentarians: “We will continue the strikes in the weeks to come. There will be no respite and no truce. France is at war.”
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin vowed to intensify air strikes against ISIS after he acknowledged that a bomb destroyed a Russian Airbus over Sinai, killing all 224 people aboard. “The criminals… must understand that vengeance is inevitable,” he declared.
Russia launched its own raids on Raqqa on November 17th, underlining its new-found concern about the ISIS danger.
Since it started its campaign in Syria on September 30th, Moscow claimed it was fighting ISIS but most of its air strikes were against rebels backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and threatening the Assad regime.
The Americans are also stepping up their 14-month-old aerial onslaught against ISIS and concentrating on its oil infrastructure in Syria, the group’s key source of revenue.
An attack that destroyed 116 ISIS oil tankers near the Iraqi border on November 15th was an unequivocal signal that the Americans are taking the gloves off.