ISIS under Pressure on Multiple Fronts
The eastern borders of the Islamic State (ISIS) statelet are shrinking as the Iraqi army makes its push toward the city whose fall started the current crisis: Mosul.The village of al-Nasr, located along the Tigris River south of Mosul, fell to Iraqi troops after days of fierce fighting earlier this week. The success shows that Iraqi security forces are making progress in their push towards the large northern city.
The operation was an early test for the Iraqi push towards Mosul. In an echo of the Anbar Awakening, the military is cooperating with local Sunni tribal fighters. The new approach ran into a notable setback, however, when Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Faris al-Sabawi was killed by an ISIS sniper entering the newly liberated village with his men.
Islamic State has responded by unleashing a wave of attacks on Iraqi security forces and allied Shiite militias. Attacks throughout Iraq claimed over 25 lives over the weekend. In all they involved at least 10 suicide bombers.
Officials in Baghdad have been eager to downplay expectations of a speedy capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and home to over a million people. This caution stems from the daunting tactical challenges involved. Chief among them is the question of sectarian relations – how the locals will respond to a predominantly Shiite Iraqi army and whether the army will maintain its professionalism or result to revenge attacks against the predominantly Sunni locals. Local tribal fighters were brought into the fold in an attempt to alleviate these very concerns.
Second is the matter of the battlefield: populated, urban, and teeming with booby traps. Mosul will present a tactical nightmare for an Iraqi army infamous for its lack of discipline.
The road to Mosul is still long and perilous, and this early success should not be taken as a sign of the city’s impending fall.
It’s more likely that the al-Nasr operation is more reflective of ISIS weakness than strength on the part of the Iraqi army. With its supply lines cut, manpower dwindling, and facing pressure on two fronts, it appears the ‘Caliphate’ is operating on borrowed time.
In Syria, government forces drove ISIS out of Palmyra in March. The next step would be a push towards Raqqa, but neither the YPG (now re-branded as the Syrian Democratic Forces) nor the Assad regime has the firepower to forge ahead for the time being. Yet should the Iraqi army seriously threaten ISIS holdings in and around Mosul, it’s possible that an ISIS transfer of men and material eastward could open the door for an attack on Islamic State’s capital from the Syrian side.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, the switch towards terrorist attacks on soft targets – on the streets of Baghdad, Paris, Brussels – reflects growing weakness and desperation on the part of ISIS. It suggests that the group is switching to the relatively low-cost, high-visibility tactic of suicide bombings to raise its ‘brand’ profile and attract more funds and men to the cause. The more expensive route of taking and holding territory – the group’s stated raison d’etre – seems to be increasingly out of reach.