May 30, 2016
In March, 2013, Free Syrian Army troops and Islamist rebel forces, including al-Nusra captured Raqqa. Soon, however, members and flags of the Islamic State appeared. By early 2014, ISIL had taken complete control of the town. Since then Raqqa has remained ISIL’s stronghold in Syria, capital of the so-called caliphate.
Fallujah lies 57 kilometers (35 miles) west of Baghdad. ISIL captured Fallujah at the beginning of January 2014. Following are passages from Washington Post’s January 3, 2014 account of what had happened:
“A rejuvenated al-Qaeda-affiliated force asserted control over the western Iraqi city of Fallujah on Friday, raising its flag over government buildings and declaring an Islamic state in one of the most crucial areas that U.S. troops fought to pacify before withdrawing from Iraq two years ago…
“… The upheaval also affirmed the soaring capabilities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the rebranded version of the al-Qaeda in Iraq organization that was formed a decade ago to confront U.S. troops and expanded into Syria last year while escalating its activities in Iraq. Roughly a third of the 4,486 U.S. troops killed in Iraq died in Anbar trying to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, nearly 100 of them in the November 2004 battle for control of Fallujah, the site of America’s bloodiest confrontation since the Vietnam War…”
A few days later ISIL captured Ramadi. In June 2014 Mosul and Tikrit were seized. (Tikrit was retaken in March 2015 and Ramadi in January 2016.)
In brief, although the Islamic State was founded nearly a decade ago in Iraq, at the time of the fall of Fallujah its potential was hardly known, at least to the public. There were those who foresaw the growing danger. For example, Sir Malcolm Rifkind – a former UK foreign secretary and defense secretary – told the Financial Times in August 2014 that the US and its allies must be prepared to work with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to have any hope of defeating ISIL. But for others, Assad was the archenemy and the Ukraine conflict didn’t help. Two-and-a-half years later, ISIL has become a problem for the world, extending its reach in all directions.
Western response to ISIL was a US-led coalition. On October 15, 2014 the US Department of Defense designated US and coalition operations as “Operation Inherent Resolve”. The coalition now has sixty-six members.
According to US Department of Defense data, as of April 16, U.S. and partner nation aircraft have flown an estimated 91,821 sorties in support of operations in Iraq and Syria. And, the total cost of operations since August 8, 2014, is $7.4 billion and the average daily cost is $11.8 million for 632 days of operations.
And, as of May 10, 2016 the U.S. and coalition have conducted a total of 12,199 strikes (8,322 Iraq / 3,877 Syria). U.S. has conducted 9,309 strikes in Iraq and Syria (5,665 Iraq / 3,644 Syria). Rest of Coalition has conducted 2,890 strikes in Iraq and Syria (2,657 Iraq / 233 Syria).
Targets damaged/destroyed as of March 17, 2016 are given as follows: 139 tanks; 374 HMMWVs; 1,162 staging areas; 5,894 buildings; 7,118 fighting positions; 1,272 oil infrastructures; 6,820 other targets.
In February 2016, CNN reported that, according to a U.S. official, more than 26,000 ISIS fighters — and as many as 27,000 — are estimated to have been killed in Iraq and Syria by the U.S. led coalition since airstrike operations began in 2014. The official emphasized this is an estimate only. U.S. officials had put the figure at roughly 20,000 toward the end of 2015.
As for Russia, Deputy Security Council Secretary Evgeny Lukyanov stated last week that since Moscow started its air operation in Syria on September 30, 2015, the Russian Air Force has eliminated over a third of Islamic State fighters in the country.
“We estimate that at the beginning of our operation Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State possessed about 80,000 fighters, of whom 28,000 (35 percent) have already been eliminated. This is [the result of] our actions together with the Syrian Army,” Evgeny Lukyanov said.
Two conclusions may be drawn from these figures:
Firstly, pressed to minimize casualties among the civilian population in areas under ISIL’s control and without a credible land component, airstrikes never had any chance of dislodging the terrorist organization from the areas it holds.
Secondly, this prolonged air campaign has enabled ISIL to extend its outreach. For more than two years now, with no air power, they have been fighting a US-led coalition of more than sixty countries, Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime (although this is disputed by regime’s adversaries). Thus, for the potential jihadist/terrorist, ISIL has become an invincible force, a temptation. ISIL may lose all the ground in Iraq and Syria but is able to open new fronts elsewhere.
On May 22, 2016 Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq announced the beginning of military operations to retake Fallujah. This is an Iran-assisted effort. A parallel US-assisted effort is underway to liberate Raqqa in Syria. Following the Russian intervention in Syria, Washington understandably wishes to demonstrate that it too can make a difference on the ground. However, political instability in Baghdad and the composition of the forces heading towards Fallujah and Raqqa pose problems. Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a statement last week cautioning the Iraqi military and allied Shi’ite militias to act with restraint in the offensive against Fallujah, saying it is vital that they protect the civilians within. The bulk of the force heading towards Raqqa, on the other hand, consists of Kurdish fighters, essentially the YPG which Turkey considers an affiliate of the PKK.
Looking at the current picture, one may say that differences over the future of President Assad appear to have become, at least for now, the subject of behind closed doors diplomacy rather than daily public controversy. On May 26, Mark C. Toner, Deputy Spokesperson of the State Department said, “we fully recognize that the one enemy where we all agree on, frankly, in Syria is ISIL or Daesh…”
Islamic countries, while occasionally condemning ISIL atrocities as acts of terrorism incompatible with Islam, continue to remain silent on its ideology fearing varying degrees of internal backlash. Western response to the refugee problem does not help. The Europeans say that they do not want a major influx of people with a different culture some of whom may prove to be troublemakers or terrorists. The plight of the refugees disturbs peoples in the Middle East. In other words, the whole thing has become a vicious circle. An early ground operation against ISIL in Iraq and Syria by an all-Arab force could have eliminated some of those problems (1). But the Arab world is in disarray. Fallujah, Raqqa and even Mosul may be retaken at some stage. However, the failure to form a genuine international/multicultural coalition to tackle the ISIL problem in its multiple dimensions remains terrorists’ greatest source of strength. And, some analysts do not dismiss the possibility that ISIL and al-Qaida may eventually unite (2).
The composition of the force heading towards Raqqa has led to new frictions between Ankara and Washington. Suffice it to say, five years ago Turkey did not have a YPG problem. President Putin, visiting Greece last week, said again that he still cannot understand why Turkey downed the Russian Su-24. Nobody does. But almost everybody understands that the cost of Ankara’s misguided involvement in the Syrian conflict is continuing to rise. Whatever the underlying reasons, the recent government change in Ankara offers Turkey a window of opportunity for a course correction in foreign policy.
(1) “Time to Put Arab Boots on the Ground”, 7 June 2015.
(2) Brookings, “Will ISIS and al-Qaida always be rivals?” by Daniel L. Byman, May 27, 2016.