- Advances in Iraq, Syria and Libya pile pressure on extremists
- Conflicting agendas of regional powers may slow progress
Islamic State militants are under attack on all fronts.
Soldiers and militias are pushing an offensive to dislodge the militants from Fallujah, the first major Iraqi city to fall to the group. Kurdish and Arab forces are fighting to capture the remaining stretch of Syrian territory along the Turkish border controlled by the jihadists. And in Libya, Islamic State’s stronghold in Sirte is under pressure as militias advance from several directions.
The extremists are facing increased attacks often backed by airstrikes from a U.S.-led coalition. But a well-resourced militant movement and the conflicting agendas of outside powers mean the group remains a powerful force. Here’s what you need to know.
Blocking the border in Syria
Losing control of the 70 km (43 miles) of Syrian territory it holds along the border with Turkey would deny Islamic State access to a frontier it uses for smuggling weapons and fighters. The town of Manbij, northeast of strategically important Aleppo province, is at the heart of the battle, Faysal Itani, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said by e-mail.
To Islamic State, Manbij represents a possible “entry point for enemies targeting the northern Aleppo countryside, and a potential staging point for a flanking operation against forces advancing on Raqqa city,” the capital of the self-declared caliphate, Itani said. Losing the town would be a significant blow.
Syrian government forces are also pushing toward Raqqa, backed by Russian airstrikes, and are 30 km from the Al-Tabqa military base to the city’s west, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Losing ground in Iraq and Libya
In Iraq, Fallujah lies just 50 km west of Baghdad and its fall to Islamic State in early 2014 was a major humiliation for the Iraqi government, one compounded by the loss of Mosul a few months later. Fallujah and nearby Ramadi, which was seized from militant control in December, are the main cities in Anbar province, home to leading Sunni tribes the Shiite-dominated government needs to rally to its side. Taking Fallujah may hasten an assault on Mosul.
European countries have been watching Islamic State’s growth in Libya with alarm, given its proximity to Europe’s southern shores and more stable North African nations such as Tunisia. Expelling the group from its foothold in Sirte would be a major relief for European leaders hit by Islamic State-inspired terrorism.
Are powers cooperating effectively against Islamic State?
Not always. American and allied planes are providing air support around Fallujah for the Iraqi military, which also benefits from the in-country help of U.S. special forces. Iraq’s powerful Shiite militias, meanwhile, are backed by Iran. The Iraqi army and the militias cooperate, but the U.S. and Iran have publicly ruled out working together.
Turkish soldiers frequently fire artillery at Islamic State forces across the border in Syria in response to rocket attacks. But Turkey is hostile to Syrian Kurdish forces, one of the most successful groups in the battlefield against Islamic State. Turkish officials fear that the establishment of a de facto Kurdish state on their frontier in northern Syria would embolden Turkey’s own Kurdish autonomy-seeking groups, led by the PKK.
Turkey protested to the U.S. after American special forces were photographed in action wearing insignia of the PYD Syrian Kurdish forces.
The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad is supported by Russia and Iran as it battles both Islamic State and rebel groups. The U.S., European powers and Sunni Gulf monarchies demand Assad’s removal in an effort to end the country’s five-year war.
Putting Libya back together
In Libya, Islamic State’s stronghold in Sirte is under pressure from Petroleum Facilities Guards from the east and militias from Misrata to the west. The new United Nations-backed unity government of Prime Minister Fayez Serraj is in the process of creating a joint command to merge the various militias that support his administration.
But the fight against Islamic State will continue to include armed forces that don’t support Serraj, such as those controlled by eastern commander General Khalifa Haftar who is perhaps the single biggest hurdle to reunifying fractured Libya.
Haftar has won support from neighboring Egypt. Other countries support Serraj, but have also helped Haftar because he’s got Libya’s most capable armed forces. French President Francois Hollande officially backs the unity government, but has signed major weapon deals with Egypt. Some of those “may end up in Haftar’s hands,” Arturo Varvelli, a research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, wrote May 30.
So, is Islamic State on the back-foot?
They are weaker than at the start of the year. Colonel Steve Warren, until recently a top U.S. military spokesman, said last month Islamic State has lost 45 percent of territory it once held in Iraq and 20 percent of that it controlled in Syria. Targeting oil infrastructure has cut the militants’ production by at least 30 percent and oil revenues by as much as 50 percent, he said.
In Libya, Islamic State suffered defeats in Benghazi and was pushed from Derna by a local Islamist group.
Resistance will continue, and Islamic State has scored victories amid its defeats. A week into the campaign to retake Fallujah, Iraqi forces haven’t penetrated the city center. Talk about a Mosul offensive remains just that.