ISIS Losing Ground in Iraq–But What Would a True Victory Look Like?

As SISMEC has previously explored, Dae’sh was able to gain so much territory in Iraq and Syria by targeting areas which were extremely vulnerable. They have so far performed extremely poorly in direct combat with well trained, equipped and prepared armed forces. In fact, Dae’sh armies in Iraq may be getting stretched thin by the continued coalition military pressure–already having lost more than a quarter of their initial territorial gains in Iraq.

Daesh orderAccording to a photo posted on Twitter overnight, of an apparent “order” given on April 27th to Dae’sh emirs in Syria; the so called “Islamic State” leadership has ordered governors in its Syrian provinces to send reinforcements to support Dae’sh fighters in Anbar and Salahadin provinces.

Dae’sh apologists on Twitter quickly denied its authenticity and scrambled to offer an explanation for why the order was given.

The conflict against Dae’sh for the past several weeks has been a back and forth affair. Dae’sh forces took back territory in Ramadi, only to lose it thanks in part to Hezbollah, and then regain it again in the last several days. Ramadi residents fled and returned according to these developments in the battle for the city. For the past week, the momentum has slightly shifted towards Dae’sh on account of taking of a dam on the southeastern side of Lake Tharthar. In addition, attacks on Samarra and Baiji within the last day, have helped give the impression that Dae’sh is turning the tide back in their favor. This impression may very well be a temporary development if the situation warrants an urgent call for reinforcements from Syria.

The Iraqi Army and its military allies have slowly pushed their way up the Tigris and Euphrates River network. Along the Tigris, only the cities of Baiji and Mukayshifash are left to conquer before heading toward Shirqat and cutting off Dae’sh forces in Hawija. This makes the attacks by Dae’sh on Samarra and Baiji so important, because of the desire not only disturb the Iraqi advances, but to cut the chain of government controlled cities.

Areas around the major urban centers along both rivers have, to some extent, come under the control of government forces. Especially around Lake Tharthar. Whence the strategic importance in Dae’sh’s conquest of the dam southeast of the lake. Along the Euphrates, government forces have struggled to take back Al-Karmah, Fallujah and Ramadi, but they made important gains by taking Haditha and heading southeast to take Al-Baghdadi. They are also making their way northwest towards the city of Rawa.

Cutting off the flow of supplies and manpower coming in from Syria may be Iraq’s ultimate goal, but for now the battle is being waged one step at a time and one city at a time, along the land of two rivers. The call for support by Dae’sh is at least an encouraging sign that the war is taking its toll on the fighting capacity of the “Islamic State.”

The question that remains is whether coalition forces can kill its fighters faster than it recruits them: thus far one consequence of the coalition bombings has been a dramatic increase in the number of foreign fighters headed to Iraq and Syria—overwhelmingly from other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Cutting off this flow will be necessary to truly defeat Dae’sh, but it will require more than bombing or security measures. Instead, the international community will have to address the despair which drives many Sunni Arabs to accept Dae’sh as one perhaps the only means of meaningfully disrupting or overthrowing the status quo. Fostering deeper partnerships with the region’s surviving autocracies in the name of “stability” is certainly a short-sighted step in the wrong direction if the goal is to defeat Dae’sh ideologically as well as militarily. Otherwise Dae’sh will simply migrate or otherwise evolve to account for their territorial losses—and once again, the U.S.-led coalition will have won the battle but lost the war.

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