Operations against the Islamic State have made some significant progress taking back swaths of territory, but with Iraqi troops spread thin, there persists legitimate concern that ISIS may once again go on the offensive.
Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), backed by U.S. air and support units, have been able to take back key territory from ISIS in Iraq, while the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have also had some success against the terrorist group’s Syrian holdings. Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (the U.S. military mission against ISIS), has estimated that roughly 40 percent of ISIS territory in Iraq has been retaken, while they have lost around 10 percent in Syria.
Though it is certainly promising to see ISIS losing territory, the numbers may not tell the whole story. Harleen Ghambir, a counter-terrorism analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, believes that using percentages of territory retaken is “not a useful metric.”
“There are some areas that are desert and some that are population centers,” Ghambir told the Daily Caller News Foundation. Taking tens or even hundreds of square miles of relatively barren territory does not have the same strategic effect on ISIS as retaking a large population center, like Mosul, that serves as a crucial staging area. She noted that the seizure of the Syrian city of Shadadi in February was an example of how taking one strategically placed city can have a profound effect on ISIS’ capability to wage war. Shadadi not only sits near rich Syrian oil fields, it is also located between the ISIS de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria, the city of Deir ez Zour (also in Syria) and Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and a key ISIS stronghold.
Not to be out-done by the SDF in Syria, the ISF has also brought the fight to ISIS in Iraq. ISF forces, backed by U.S. air strikes and support, were able to retake the city of Ramadi in December of last year. Ramadi, which sits less than 100 miles from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, represented a major step forward in ISF capabilities and has been the force’s premier victory against ISIS.
Unfortunately, ISF forces have come to realize that retaking a city and successfully holding it are two very different propositions. ISIS militants may no longer be the masters of Ramadi, but they are still harassing the ISF with guerilla tactics and terrorist attacks. Warren has said the U.S. and ISF are aware that ISIS is using a strategy of “disruption attacks,” and the coalition is making best efforts to counter them.
Ghambir explained that ISIS has evolved as a fighting force in order to survive their losses and the changing demands of the conflict. “ISIS is a hybridized force,” she said, it has gone from utilizing terrorist attacks to guerilla tactics to conventional military strategies. The group is flexible because it is able to revert back to guerilla or terrorist attacks when necessary.
ISIS continues to pose a threat to areas in Iraq it has never held due to its fluidity. Even the Iraqi capital of Baghdad has been infiltrated by ISIS suicide bombers. While disruption attacks may not gain ISIS any new territory, they do cause the ISF to spread out, thinning their lines.
“There is an issue with [ISF] engaging in multiple fronts,” said Patrick Martin, Ghambir’s colleague at the Institute for the Study of War who specializes in the security and political situation in Iraq, to theDCNF.
ISF forces are currently combating ISIS on several fronts in Iraq. Operation Desert Lynx is the ongoing mission to retake key ISIS territory along the strategically important Euphrates River Valley. Several operations have been conducted in Iraq’s northern regions in preparation to enter Nineveh province and Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. In addition, the ISF must continue to secure recently reconquered areas.
Disruptive tactics may frustrate and spread ISF forces, but as a long-term strategy, they only slow ISIS’ inevitable decline. Even as they seemingly recede, ISIS has shown a certain ability to react to pressure on one front by flowing into another. Ghambir refers to this strategy as a “zone defense,” and ISIS practices it at both a regional and international level. While the terrorist group has lost territory in Syria and Iraq, it has secured footholds in Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria.
The zone defense may not be enough for ISIS, and if their past behavior is a sign of things to come, it is quite possible that they are gearing up for a new offensive come June. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins June 6, and ISIS has used the period of fasting as an opportunity to launch offensive campaigns for the past four years.
Ramadan campaigns are not a uniquely ISIS-related phenomenon; the terror group’s parent organization al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) was known to engage in the same strategy during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. In most of its Ramadan campaigns, ISIS has seen some success, though former Navy intelligence analyst and consultant Malcolm Nance argued that despite the “extreme amounts of bloodshed” during last year’s Ramadan campaign, the obscene violence has led to united resistance from ISIS’ rivals.
Not only are the ISF’s ranks spread thin, there are now reports that its soldiers are deserting their posts. ISIS has probed the weaknesses in Iraqi security, and it has shown an ability to attack both former territories and the heart of the Iraqi capital. Though the group has suffered some serious losses, but if ISIS were to launch another Ramadan offensive come June, it could prove to be a serious challenge for the ISF.
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