Unless the Islamic State’s (IS) military chiefs devise a surprise strategy immediately, it appears today that the IS is doomed to defeat. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s words in his historic November 20, 1942, speech after the defeat of the Nazi army in El-Alamein, the latest defeats of the IS in Syria and Iraq are the most blatant signal “of the beginning of the end.”
At this moment, the IS is being attacked in a pincer movement both in Syria and Iraq:
Manbij and Jarablus. Beginning in August 2016, the IS lost in Syria to the Syrian Democratic Forces the strategic town of Manbij, northwest of Aleppo, commanding the IS’ last access to the Turkish border– a route for supplies, manpower, and equipment. The SDF is a Kurdish-Arab alliance dominated by Kurds, sponsored and advised by U.S. forces. The IS evacuated Manbij, the village of Jarablus, and the last outposts adjacent to the Turkish border, in the aftermath of the Turkish-Free Syrian Army military incursion in late August. As a result, beyond succumbing to superior forces, the IS has been cut off from its ultimate logistical support. The border with Turkey is sealed, and Erdogan’s Turkey has become a fierce adversary of the IS. Together with the anti-IS American-led coalition, Russia, and Iran, Turkey has vowed to defeat the IS.
Raqqah. The IS retreat from the northwestern part of Syria has opened for the coalition the military option to advance eastward towards the IS capital, Raqqah, The IS capital is for all practical purposes now under siege, caught between the Kurdish forces north and east of Raqqah and cut off from the last route to the Turkish border after its defeat in Manbij.
The Kurds. The Turkish military incursion into Syrian territory together with its Syrian proxy forces (the Free Syrian Army) has a special meaning: Turkey will not allow the creation of Kurdish territorial continuity along its borders, stretching from Iraqi Kurdistan until the area of Jarablus-Manbij, and it has taken anticipatory steps in order to prevent such a development.
The Changing Strategic Picture
The defeat of the IS in northwest Syria and its retreat from the area has created a situation where the remaining forces on the ground are either pro-Russian (the Syrian regime and its allies), pro-United States (the Kurdish and CIA-supported rebel factions), or pro-Turkish (the so-called coalition of the Free Syrian army). This creates a potential situation for a political settlement between the Syrian warring parties imposed by the regional and world powers: Turkey, Russia and the United States. As this analysis is being published, however, an accord has been elusive.
Iraq. Parallel to the developments in Syria, the IS also suffered the loss of significant territorial assets in Iraq. The U.S.-led forces succeeded in retaking in the last week of July the strategic air base of Qayara, 50 miles south of Mosul, together with the huge oil fields in its vicinity that used to provide the IS with cash and influence, thus creating a vice-like situation similar to the one that prevails in Raqqa, Syria.
Mosul is on the verge of being surrounded by anti-IS forces. In the east, a few miles north of Mosul are deployed Turkish forces (inside Iraqi sovereign territory) in the abandoned Assyrian town of B’aqubah; to the north, the Kurdish Peshmerga dominate the scene to such extent that together with U.S. Special Forces they have been attacking IS targets almost 200 miles inside IS territory. On September 4, 2016, gunmen broke into an IS police station in the Nineveh (Mosul) province and killed an IS security chief, Mahmoud Sulaiman al-Muslih and four “security members,” a Kurdish newspaper reported.
No doubt that the battle for Raqqah and Mosul will be complex since the IS has adopted a policy of using civilians as human shields, a tactic that could cost the loss of countless civilians. The IS has also planted thousands of anti-personnel mines in minefields in order to slow the advance of troops, prepared deadly Improvised Explosive Devices, and is ready to use scores of suicide bombers against anti-IS alliance targets. Moreover, combat in urban areas is devastating for both the attackers and defenders, a fact that requires very thorough preparations and the massive use of firepower by both sides.
For these reasons, it appears that the offensive against Raqqa and Mosul may not to be launched in the very near future. From the behavior of the coalition in previous attacks (Palmyra, Ramadi, Tikrit), the anti-IS coalition will initiate its offensive when it has orderly prepared the troops. Only then will the coalition choose the means and the right timing for the beginning of the assault on the IS last outposts.
Beyond Syria an Iraq
On other fronts, one should note that the United States has engaged the IS in Libya in its main bastion, the coastal town of Sirte, using its airpower and Special Forces on the ground, a task also undertaken by French and Italian Special Forces. Far away, almost under the radar, a U.S. drone eliminated Hafez Said, the commander of the IS in Afghanistan (Khurasan Province) together with 30 other fighters, signaling that the U.S.-led coalition will try to track and destroy all targets belonging to the Islamic State wherever they are in order to prevent the IS from recreating its now-shrinking Caliphate in other havens.
Having said that, it is vital to stress that an IS in agony could very well mean a revival of terrorist attacks in the West, wherever the IS finds it suitable and opportune to act. Past terrorist attacks have proven that the IS uses the local radical Muslim infrastructure in Europe, the United States, and Asia despite being under attack in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Do not underestimate the lethality of the IS terrorist apparatus nor the IS willingness to employ unconventional means to harm the West to “punish” it for its attacks on the Caliphate.