Peshmerga armor heading to battlefront against ISIS on Khazir front east of Mosul. Photo by Ayub Nuri.
As May comes to an end, the Islamic State (ISIS) is having to deal with three new offensives which all aim to ultimately force it from its remaining city strongholds in both Iraq and Syria.
In Syria the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have launched an offensive against ISIS in Raqqa, taking and securing parts of the countryside and forcing ISIS further south. The long-term aim of this operation is likely the capture of the city of Raqqa – ISIS’s primary stronghold in Syria.
Over the border the Kurdish Peshmerga launched offensive operations against ISIS-held villages near Mosul as part of their goal to reach that city and assist Iraqi military efforts to liberate it.
Also, in Anbar province the Iraqi military has had a notable month of operations. It recaptured the small but strategically-important town of Rutbah from ISIS and in the process regained control of a key main highway and trade route with Jordan. The Iraqi military, supported by Shiite militias and Sunni tribal forces, also began a large-scale operation against ISIS in Fallujah after Baghdad endured its most deadly month of bomb attacks so far this year.
All of these operations are being supported by United States-led coalition airpower. Coalition Special Forces embedded as advisors with the SDF and Peshmerga are also able to call in precise close air support – something which gives these advancing forces a technological edge over their ISIS adversaries.
With the likely exception of Fallujah – where ISIS will likely suffer its next major defeat in the near future – these forces are extending their frontline positions against ISIS and cutting that group off and boxing it inside its strongholds.
In Syria, the SDF is securing victories against ISIS from earlier this year. It has pushed the militants from the Hasakah Province further south and is gradually advancing on Raqqa. ISIS has already declared a state of emergency in that city, indicating it is preparing for the likelihood it will have to fight enemies in its defense.
In Iraq the Peshmerga are similarly securing the countryside and general periphery near Mosul and also containing that group in its stronghold in preparation for the long-anticipated battle for Mosul. They are doing this by incrementally extending frontline positions closer to that ISIS stronghold, making any efforts on the part of that group to mount offensives much more costly and risky.
ISIS is evidently frustrated by these losses, one of its spokesmen recently lashed out at the group’s many enemies in an online statement where he said the loss of its territory in Iraq and Syria, and even the killing of its leader, would not destroy the group.
However, the loss of Mosul would certainly be a fundamental blow to ISIS’s claim to have established a successful polity. It was the fall of the city in the first place that enabled ISIS to declare itself a state overnight. Losing it along with its Syria stronghold would undoubtedly be a major blow to the group’s reputation, especially since it has equated its success with the large swaths of territory it was successfully able to conquer and hold.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.