ISIS hit by twin offensives in Syria, Iraq
BEIRUT - In an unprecedented pincer attack, Iraqi and Syrian armies, backed by an unlikely alliance of the United States and Russia, are battering Islamic State (ISIS) citadels in the strongest offensive against the jihadist caliphate since it was proclaimed in July 2014.
The ancient and strategic Syrian city of Palmyra, captured by ISIS in May 2015 then heavily damaged, fell to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces on March 26th, aided by intensive Russian air strikes.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army, backed by US air power and artillery, launched the long-delayed Operation Conquest to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which ISIS stormed in June 2014.
There does not appear to have been coordination in the two offensives but Palmyra and Mosul symbolised apparent ISIS invincibility, so the fall of Palmyra marked a major blow against the caliphate declared by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — and one that may signal the beginning of the end of the proto-state spanning northern Syria and western Iraq.
The way is now open for Assad’s forces to push 100km eastward to the last ISIS strongholds in Syria around the oil-rich town of Deir ez- Zor and the city of Raqqa, the caliphate’s de facto capital.
Driving ISIS out of Palmyra “is an important step in the containment and eventual defeat” of the jihadists, wrote Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think-tank. “It may not mean the end for ISIS… But it is a step in chipping away at the group’s power base, both geographically and strategically, as well as debasing the myth that the caliphate’s armies are all-conquering and unable to be defeated… The noose is tightening.”
With the Iraqi Army, still being rebuilt from its collapse during the 2014 ISIS blitzkrieg, already pushing the jihadists out of villages south of Mosul, there are hopes the militants will be trapped between the two advances.
As Russian air power blasts the way open for Assad’s troops, the Iraqi forces, backed by Iranian-controlled Shia militias, are being aided by a small contingent of US Marines, a 200-man special operations force, and US-led coalition air power. It is likely to be the most brutal fight the Iraqis have yet experienced. ISIS has turned Mosul into a fortress.
US support remains minimal, in line with President Barack Obama’s reluctance to get involved in another Middle Eastern imbroglio. However, there are signs a more virile US military effort is developing.
But ISIS has shown itself to be resilient to setbacks and it should not be written off yet. When its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq, lost control of core territory to US troops in 2006-07, it took to guerrilla warfare and indiscriminate bombings.
This time the jihadists may well strike back with a broadside of terrorist attacks in Europe and Russia as well as the Middle East.