Armies Advance on Islamic State Territory in Syria and Iraq

  • Jihadist group urges civilians to leave Palmyra amid clashes
  • Iraqi army stepping up operation to retake city of Mosul

Militaries in Syria and Iraq prepared to seize key territory from Islamic State, as the group comes under intense pressure in countries where it has implemented its extremist rule and trained followers to carry out terrorist attacks.

In Palmyra, Islamic State used loudspeakers to urge civilians to flee an advance by Syrian troops, a U.K.-based monitoring organization said, adding clashes since Wednesday had killed 40 militants and nine pro-government troops. Soldiers secured a southwestern entrance to the ancient town, Syria’s state-controlled SANA news agency said. Islamic State has destroyed world-renowned monuments since seizing Palmyra last May.

Across the border in Iraq, security forces on Thursday launched an offensive to expel Islamic State from Nineveh province, seizing eight villages, Al-Mada Press reported. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has for months talked of what is likely to be a long battle to retake the provincial capital of Mosul, the jihadist group’s biggest prize in Iraq.

“Islamic State is under pressure on several fronts,” said Riad Kahwaji, head of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. It’s losing ground in Iraq and Syria, while steps taken by Turkey and other countries to reduce the flow of recruits are working, he said. The oil slump is also hitting its finances. “These are all factors impacting IS capabilities.”

Brussels Attack

World leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron have repeatedly argued that defeating Islamic State in its strongholds is necessary to free Syrians and Iraqis from its oppressive rule, and to lower the threat of terrorist attacks like those in Brussels on Tuesday.

European nations are “concerned about a community of 5,000 suspects that have been radicalized in Europe, that have traveled to Syria and Iraq for conflict experience, some of whom -- not all -- have since come back to Europe,” Europol Director Rob Wainwright said Thursday in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program.

The group has clearly adopted a new strategy involving teams of well-trained, well-planned terrorists carrying out multiple attacks aimed at creating mass casualties, Wainwright added.

The loss of Palmyra would be “quite a blow” to Islamic State, according to Colonel Richard Kemp, a former British military commander and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

‘Increasingly Isolated’

“Defeating them in Palmyra and other places can certainly help to reduce the level of inspiration that they provide to global jihad,” said Kemp.

In its latest analysis, IHS Conflict Monitor said Islamic State had lost 22 percent of its territory in the past 15 months. The group “is increasingly isolated, and being perceived as in decline,” IHS said in an e-mailed report. Even with losses of that scale, it still controls large strips of both Iraq and Syria.

The fighting in Syria is taking place on the western and southwestern edges of Palmyra, listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and home to the ruins of a 2,000-year-old city that was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world.

Peace Talks

Troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been trying to retake Palmyra since last week. They’re being backed by Russian airstrikes as well as allied militias on the ground, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that documents the conflict through activists on the ground.

Troops have seized hills overlooking Palmyra and established full control over an area three kilometers (2 miles) from the town’s citadel, SANA said. Syria’s air force has pounded Islamic State convoys, inflicting heavy losses, the agency said. Islamic State has booby-trapped orchards in the town and has brought in reinforcements, SOHR said.

Islamic State militants had hailed their seizure of the town that lies in Homs province, about 240 kilometers northeast of the Syrian capital, Damascus, as a coup. They destroyed parts of the Temple of Bel and used explosives to flatten the nearly 2,000-year-old Baalshamin temple in August. They also beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, an archaeologist who had spent more than four decades preserving Palmyra’s ruins as the city’s head of antiquities.

The government advance in Palmyra comes as indirect Syrian peace talks are under way in Geneva to end five years of war that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced about half of the country’s 23 million people.

In a rare meeting with a Syrian government official, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini met with Bashar Jaafari, who is heading the Assad team to the negotiations, on Wednesday. She came to encourage Syrian parties “to get involved positively in the indirect talks,” Jaafari said, according to SANA.

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