ISIS hit by twin offensives in Syria, Iraq

Friday 01/04/2016
Syrian pro-government forces patrolling street in ancient city of Palmyra

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.