Is­lamic State bat­tered on mul­ti­ple fronts

U.S. aid­ing from side­lines in Iraq, Syria, Libya

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY CARLO MUNOZ

As losses con­tinue to mount for Is­lamic State fight­ers along mul­ti­ple fronts in Iraq and Syria, the ter­ror­ist group is fac­ing the most se­ri­ous threat to its Mid­dle East strongholds since the be­gin­ning of the U.S.-led coali­tion cam­paign.

In Iraq last week, gov­ern­ment spe­cial forces and Shi­ite mili­tias breached the city lim­its of Fal­lu­jah, which the Is­lamic State has been hold­ing for two years.

Mean­while, sep­a­rate cam­paigns by Syr­ian gov­ern­ment troops and U.S.-backed rebel forces are re­claim­ing ter­ri­tory from the ex­trem­ist group across the bor­der, and Libyan gov­ern­ment troops say they are push­ing back Is­lamic State forces who have set up a ma­jor satel­lite strong­hold in the coastal city of Sirte.

U.S. of­fi­cials say the mul­ti­ple of­fen­sives are strain­ing the Is­lamic State’s re­sources and putting stress on its lead­er­ship to hold the forces to­gether.

“We def­i­nitely see in­creased pres­sure in Iraq [and] Syria, and … the goal is to in­crease that pres­sure, then make the en­emy fight in mul­ti­ple di­rec­tions at once,” Col. Chris Garver, the top U.S. mil­i­tary spokesman in Iraq, said dur­ing a brief­ing from Bagh­dad.

The turn of the bat­tle is also cut­ting into the sup­ply of fresh troops for the Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. The num­ber of for­eign­ers head­ing to the Mid­dle East to fight for the ter­ror­ist group has dwin­dled sig­nif­i­cantly to an es­ti­mated 19,000 to 25,000 to­tal in Iraq and Syria, Col. Garver said.

Is­lamic State com­man­ders have be­gun con­script­ing civil­ians from its ter­ri­to­ries in Iraq and Syria to re­plen­ish fight­ers cap­tured or killed in mul­ti­ple bat­tles across the re­gion, he said.

“They are im­press­ing young men, even chil­dren, into their ranks to be­come fight­ers. So they’re try­ing to re­gen­er­ate their forces from in­side the so-called caliphate,” Col. Garver said.

Af­ter flush­ing out Is­lamic State fight­ers from the cities of Ra­madi, Hit and Rutba in Iraq’s volatile An­bar prov­ince, Iraqi forces — backed by U.S. air power and heavy ar­tillery — are press­ing the at­tack in Fal­lu­jah, the ter­ror­ist group’s last ma­jor out­post in An­bar.

Iraqi spe­cial forces re­port­edly be­gan push­ing into south­ern por­tions of Fal­lu­jah along­side Arab Sunni and Ira­nian-backed Shi­ite mili­ti­a­men.

Ini­tial front-line re­ports in­di­cate that the fight in Fal­lu­jah will be akin to the drawnout bat­tles trig­gered by the Is­lamic State’s ag­gres­sive de­fense of Ra­madi and Kobani in Syria. But Iraqi com­man­ders and their U.S. ad­vis­ers are wait­ing to see whether Is­lamic State fight­ers will try to hold Fal­lu­jah.

“We are still try­ing to as­sess the over­all in­tent of [the Is­lamic State] in the city, whether they in­tend to try to hold to the last man or if they will aban­don their de­fenses as [Iraqi Se­cu­rity Forces] fight deeper into the city,” Col. Garver said.

As the fight for Fal­lu­jah un­folds, local forces also are inch­ing for­ward to lib­er­ate Mo­sul, Iraq’s sec­ond-largest city and the Is­lamic State’s cap­i­tal in the coun­try.

Over the past sev­eral days, Kur­dish pesh­merga forces have cleared eight vil­lages con­trolled by the Is­lamic State east of Mo­sul, press­ing the Kur­dish line to within 24 miles of the city. U.S. air­craft de­stroyed a main Is­lamic State hub used to trans­port black-mar­ket oil 5 miles west of Mo­sul, Col. Garver said.

Syria push

In north­ern Syria, Arab and Kur­dish mili­tias and U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions teams are close to sev­er­ing a key Is­lamic State sup­ply line.

The Arab-ma­jor­ity Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, or SDF, are within days of cap­tur­ing north­ern Syria’s Man­bij district. The area, 100 miles south­east of the Turk­ish bor­der city of Gaziantep, is a well-known way­point for Is­lamic State fight­ers, weapons and equip­ment bound for the group’s de facto cap­i­tal of Raqqa.

As in Iraq, U.S. air­craft have pum­meled tar­gets in Man­bij, launch­ing over 80 in­di­vid­ual airstrikes in the area since SDF and U.S. forces be­gan their as­sault on the district, ac­cord­ing to the Pen­ta­gon.

Aside from Man­bij’s strate­gic im­por­tance as a life­line into Raqqa, Is­lamic State op­er­a­tives in the north­ern Syr­ian district were plan­ning at­tacks against Eu­rope, Tur­key and the United States, De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter said last week.

“We know that there is ex­ter­nal plot­ting con­ducted from Man­bij City, not just Raqqa” Mr. Carter told re­porters en route to se­cu­rity talks with Asian al­lies in Sin­ga­pore.

Cut­ting off Man­bij from Raqqa will also bol­ster “shap­ing op­er­a­tions” in and around the Is­lamic State’s so-called cap­i­tal by U.S.sup­ported Syr­ian units, said Col. Garver.

Roughly 300 U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions troops are on the ground in Syria ad­vis­ing SDF and Kur­dish mili­tias in their lon­gawaited as­sault on Raqqa.

“Our plan is to de­stroy [the Is­lamic State], re­duce their ef­fec­tive­ness as a mil­i­tary force. They’re in­side Raqqa, and so even­tu­ally, we’re go­ing to get there,” Col. Garver said.

Libya heat­ing up

The story is much the same in Libya. De­spite po­lit­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties form­ing an ef­fec­tive cen­tral gov­ern­ment, Libya has forces fight­ing un­der the U.N.-rec­og­nized Gov­ern­ment of Na­tional Ac­cord.

The forces have fought to within 3 miles of the cen­ter of Sirte, the site of grisly ex­e­cu­tions of local res­i­dents by the Is­lamic State, Brig. Gen. Mo­hammed al-Ghasri told The As­so­ciated Press.

The drive be­gan two weeks ago when mili­tias from the western city of Mis­rata, backed by heavy air sup­port, pushed into Is­lamic State ter­ri­tory and clashed with ex­trem­ists on the streets of Sirte.

Pen­ta­gon spokesman Peter Cook de­nied any U.S. in­volve­ment in the Sirte of­fen­sive.

“There has been no train­ing, ad­vis­ing or as­sist­ing mis­sion” by U.S. forces in Libya, he told re­porters.

A small num­ber of U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions teams have been spot­ted on the ground in north­east­ern and western Libya for the bet­ter part of a year, con­duct­ing pa­trols and ad­vis­ing local mili­tias in the fight against the Is­lamic State.

Last month, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and its Eu­ro­pean al­lies be­gan ship­ping weapons and other equip­ment to Libya to bat­tle the ji­hadi threat, de­spite U.N. sanc­tions still tech­ni­cally im­posed on Tripoli.

Gen. David Ro­driguez, the U.S. Africa Com­mand chief, has met re­peat­edly with Libyan of­fi­cials in Tripoli to dis­cuss where U.S. forces could pro­vide more di­rect sup­port to Libyan mili­tias.

But Libyan au­thor­i­ties are con­cerned that the Pen­ta­gon’s ef­forts to arm, train and equip forces may be mov­ing too fast, given the pit­falls of the last U.S.-led ef­fort.

“We have to be cau­tious. We can­not rush back into this,” Wafa Bu­gaighis, charge d’af­faires at the Em­bassy of Libya, said dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion in Wash­ing­ton.

Chal­lenges re­main

Mil­i­tary an­a­lysts say the Is­lamic State is far from beaten and has proved a tough op­po­nent in the field.

In ad­di­tion, the Iraq and Syr­ian of­fen­sives are marred by deep sec­tar­ian and po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions among the var­i­ous forces nom­i­nally on the same side in the fight against the Is­lamic State. Ac­tivists warn of a po­ten­tial hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis for res­i­dents trapped in cities such as Fal­lu­jah, Mo­sul and Raqqa.

U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials also warn that the Is­lamic State may re­spond to its re­verses on the bat­tle­field by step­ping up sui­cide bomb­ings and other ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

The re­gional threat posed by the Is­lamic State “re­mains high and con­tin­ues to di­ver­sify,” U.N. Un­der­sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Jef­frey Felt­man told the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

AS­SO­CIATED PRESS

An Iraqi spe­cial op­er­a­tions sol­dier mon­i­tors ra­dio traf­fic in Fal­lu­jah, which has been un­der siege by the Is­lamic State group for two years. U.S. ad­vis­ers say bat­tle­field losses to the mil­i­tant group could trig­ger head­line-grab­bing ter­ror­ist at­tacks dur­ing Ra­madan.

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