Iraqi Security Forces engage ISIS militants in Ramadi last December. AP photo.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The Islamic State’s chemical weapons attack against Kurdish Peshmerga forces on the Gwer-Makhmour is the latest in a series of assaults ISIS has mounted this month.
Fourteen Peshmerga were wounded when ISIS used heavy weapons fitted with chemical agents to bombard their front-lines on Saturday.
This is the latest in a series of attacks ISIS has mounted against its various enemies over the course of the last two weeks.
It began with an attack on the Peshmerga in the town of Tel Skof just north of Mosul. Scores of Peshmerga and an American Navy SEAL, who was part of a quick reaction force, were killed in that attack, before it was repelled.
In Syria, the group has more aggressively sought to reverse its losses by mounting what appears to be an effort aimed at eventually recapturing the city of Palmyra, which they lost in late March. ISIS has reportedly seized the Shaer gas field in the Palmyra desert after killing 30 Syrian soldiers in a three-day assault and then taking their weapons.
Additionally, the group continues to mount frequent suicide bomb attacks against Iraqi Army positions in the province of Anbar and launched a devastating car bombing in Baghdad’s Sadr City last week, killing at least 93 people – the most deadly attack in the Iraqi capital this year.
This comes a year after ISIS’s last successful offensives, which were the capture of both Ramadi and Palmyra last May, just under a year after the militants’ takeover of Mosul in June 2014.
On Friday, ISIS reportedly declared a state of emergency in its Syrian stronghold city of Raqqa. That led the spokesman for the US-led anti-ISIS campaign, Col. Steve Warren, to conclude: "We know this enemy feels threatened, as they should."
In mid-April Warren said that ISIS was cracking: "Our enemy has been weakened and we are now working to fracture him," he told reporters.
Similarly, after an Iraqi offensive backed by the coalition successfully retook Ramadi last December, US officials pointed out that ISIS is becoming increasingly weakened and contained, which they said was indicative of a successful coalition strategy.
US Secretary of State John Kerry argued in a meeting in Rome early last February that: "Our advances (against ISIS) ... are undeniable. We have launched nearly 10,000 airstrikes, we have interrupted their finance mechanisms, they have had to cut the salaries of their fighters, we have interrupted their capacity to get revenues."
Kerry conceded that, "We are still not at the victory that we want to achieve, and will achieve." But he added that: “We have seen Daesh (ISIS) play a game of metastasizing out to other countries, particularly Libya."
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and US President Barack Obama have both said they expect to successfully force ISIS from Mosul by the end of 2016. However, with the ongoing political crisis gripping Baghdad, any operation against Mosul may well be once again postponed.
The crisis in Baghdad came after the Iraqi Army’s offensive against ISIS-held villages got off to a painfully slow start last April on the Makhmour front. The Iraqi Army’s Maj. Gen. Najim al-Jobori has admitted that the army had “hoped for an uprising (against ISIS) in the villages as we approach them.”
That did not happen because of the mistrust of the Iraqi Army among villagers.
Recent efforts by ISIS to rebound and mount offensives in both Iraq and Syria indicate it is still willing to put up a fight in both countries.
The group’s recent offensives -- and general efforts to lash out and do serious harm against the forces that are arrayed against it -- come after ISIS's loss of Ramadi and Palmyra. The ISIS backlashes are likely the group’s attempts to reverse these losses.
The capture of those cities came after ISIS lost Tikrit in April 2015 and appeared to be suffering its first setbacks. Capturing those cities was a blow to coalition efforts, dashing any coalition hopes of retaking Mosul in 2015 and making ISIS look significantly stronger and its enemies weak and unorganized.
ISIS may again be fervently trying to replicate those circumstances, reversing recent losses and preserving morale in its rank and file at a time when it is suffering increasing territorial setbacks and showing signs that it is much weaker economically than it was this time last year.