ISIS Resurgent in Anbar Province
Iraqi Forces Face New Challenge from ISIS in Western Desert
Iraqi forces backed by the U.S-led coalition are increasing operations against a resurgent Islamic State (IS, also ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in remote desert border areas, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials.
While much of the international attention is focused on large offensives to rout IS from Mosul in northern Iraq, and Raqqa, the IS de facto capital in Syria, IS activities in Iraq’s Anbar province are now drawing additional attention from Iraqi and coalition forces.
Iraqi and tribal fighters joined this week to sweep and secure IS areas in and around Rutba, the major town on the road toward Jordan. The move came after several dozen Iraqi security forces were killed in IS ambushes in recent weeks.
“We have started this operation to reach the Iraqi-Syrian border,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said this week. “And our second step, God willing, will be to control our border to prevent IS terrorists from moving freely.”
Complex Operation for Inherent Resolve
The U.S.-led coalition, which has a major military installation known as Ayn al-Asad Airbase in the province, told VOA in a statement that the offensive in western Anbar would be challenging.
“This is an incredibly complex operating environment involving many partners and nations, especially those that share borders,” the anti-IS coalition’s Operation Inherent Resolve statement said.
With IS controlling much of the sprawling desert on the Syrian and Jordanian borders, experts say the fight against it will need time. Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said:
We are at the start of a long journey . I do not think this offensive that has been announced is a two-month offensive or three-month offensive. It is a really long-term, multiyear initiative, and it is going to require significant international support.
Anbar, Iraqi’s largest province, straddles much of the west and borders Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, all the way to the gates of the capital, Baghdad. Despite its size, it is a sparsely populated, Sunni-majority region with people mostly settled near the Euphrates River.
Long History of Islamic Militancy in Anbar Province
Throughout history, various Iraqi governments had difficulty controlling the province. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, violence continued in Anbar, and more Americans died fighting insurgency groups there than in any other part of the country.
The province holds an appeal for IS, which declared a caliphate in 2014. It is not only a Sunni-majority province but also has key transportation routes to Jordan and Syria, a major oil pipeline, one of Iraq’s most important dams, a number of Iraqi military bases and the American base.
“To control that region, there needs to be a large number of troops and advanced military infrastructure,” Sarbaz Hama Amin, a Kurdish commander fighting IS in northern Iraq, told VOA. “But most importantly, you need the government from the other side of the border to control its territory.”
The Syrian government lost control over most of its border with Iraq when civil war broke out in 2011, and Anbar province filled with extremist groups infiltrating from Syria.
An extensive campaign in the Anbar province was fought by the Iraqi Armed Forces and their allies from 2015 to 2016 to recapture areas of the Anbar Governorate held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), including the city of Ramadi, which ISIL had taken in 2015. Despite apparent successes, latest developments indicate that these gains are under threat.
ISIS Gains Reported Across Syria and Iraq
As it suffers major setbacks across Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is doubling back in some areas and retaking territory it lost months ago.
Towards the end of 2016, a group of nearly 4,000 Islamic State (IS) fighters stormed the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria and took control of much of it in a surprise attack. Despite intensive airstrikes by the U.S., Russia and Syria, IS has been able to hold onto much of Palmyra.
IS fighters also succeeded in retaking at least a dozen villages from Syrian government troops and other local forces, including areas in eastern Homs and Deir Ezzor in Syria, and parts of Anbar province in Iraq.“IS is now looking for alternative territories to conquer,” said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that has researchers across the country.
IS is using the Syrian desert as a route to resupply and reinforce its fighters in Palmyra and other parts of Homs province, Abdulrahman said. The desert connects eastern Homs to IS strongholds of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria and the sandy plain stretches for hundreds of miles into western Iraq.
IS has been commanding its incoming forces in Homs from its de facto capital of Raqqa. And even though IS is losing fighters daily in Mosul, it has deployed some to Syria for surprise attacks, analysts said.“Most of the IS fighters who took over Palmyra were deployed from Iraq,” Abdulrahman said.
IS succeeded In Palmyra because Syrian troops and their allies were concentrating on retaking Aleppo from rebel fighters, a Kurdish commander fighting IS said.
“As long as [IS] controls major cities like Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, it will pose threats to other areas, including those who have recently been retaken from the group,” said Nasir Hajji Mansur, a commander with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The SDF, backed by U.S. air power, has made significant gains against IS fighters in large parts of north and northeastern Syria. The Kurdish-led force has also launched an offensive to rout IS from Raqqa.
But once the air support focuses on other areas in Syria and Iraq IS “can retake any part it desires in Syria,” Abdulrahman said.
With battles going on along several fronts in Syria and Iraq, IS “advances speak more to the weakness of its enemy than the group’s own strength,” said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an analyst at the Middle East Forum, a U.S.-based think tank.
In Syria, IS remains in control 72 percent of territory it has captured since its inception in 2014, according to U.S. officials. Government forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are concentrating on fighting rebels.
“The Assad regime is weak, has manpower issues and is incapable of fighting on two fronts,” Oula A. Alrifai, a Syria analyst based in Washington, said of Syrian forces’ limited capabilities.
IS’s strategy is to find weak spots in Syria’s civil war and exploit them, analysts said.
“The civil war in Syria allows [IS] to operate more freely on the ground,” said Marco Manuel Marsili, a Middle East researcher at the University of Lisbon, Portugal.
In Iraq, where U.S.-backed Iraqi and Kurdish forces are taking on IS in its stronghold of Mosul, advances have slowed in recent weeks. And that, in part, is due to severe weather conditions that have limited U.S. airstrikes on IS positions in the city, said Sime Usali, a Kurdish commander who runs a peshmerga unit near Mosul.
“This weather doesn’t only make it difficult for Iraqi forces to combat effectively in Mosul, it also allows [IS] to move fighters between Iraq and Syria,” he told VOA. “Any relief [IS] can get in Iraq reflects on its movements in Syria.”
Anbar: “A Haven for Islamic Terrorist Groups”
“Anbar will naturally remain a haven for terrorist groups until Syria is able to control its borders,” Amin said. “But there is not a single Syrian soldier on its border now, and it is unlikely there will be any for a while.”
Amin said it is likely the U.S.-led coalition can help Iraqi forces with limited operations to reduce IS’s ability to attack the big cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. But in the end, added Knights, Iraqi forces need full control of the province:
It is a very important challenge because the Iraqis want to open the Amman-Baghdad highway and develop it as an economic corridor. There is no way you can have truckers from the gulf moving through … if you have IS guys raiding down from the north into that highway system.
Sources: VoA; and other sources.