Thursday, June 4, 2015

Dark and Bright Spots on the Middle Eastern War Maps

Over the past few weeks, ISIS has made a major comeback in Iraq and has gained significant ground in all the non-Kurdish parts of Syria. They're expanding territory in eastern Libya amid the renewed civil war there, and hold almost all of eastern Yemen. It's looking bad. The American/Jordanian-led air campaigns are just not enough to keep them bottled up.

In Anbar (Iraq) and northern Syria, there are a few bright spots that are worth highlighting.


Ramadi fell to ISIS a few weeks back, despite a significant numerical advantage on the part of Iraqi forces. US command says the Iraqi forces lost their will to fight, which is surprising, given the number of attacks they'd repelled in the previous weeks. 

Iraq is responding by sending in the Shiite militias, though right now it seems that they're working on surrounding Fallujah rather than Ramadi, which suggests that ISIS forces had been dispatched from Fallujah to take and hold Ramadi, leaving Fallujah open to attack. Shiite militias in Sunni-dominated Anbar will doubtless be a major problem, but Iraq is stuck choosing between bad options if its regular forces turn tail when attacked.


In all non-Kurdish territory, ISIS keeps pushing south and west. They've taken Palmyra and are now holding positions near both Damascus and Daraa. I'm thinking that the best hope to end the war is that ISIS threatens Damascus and other major population centers like Daraa and Homs so much that the rebels and gov't form a deal to deal with them.

The one bright spot is that the Kurds have gone on a major offensive. They finally crossed the river in the northeast to reclaim hundreds of villages that ISIS held, and they're moving fast. They've alleviated pressure on Qamishli and are surrounding Hasakah from the west. From Kobane, they're moving east towards Tall Abyad, albeit more slowly--this crossing is an important supply line from Turkey for ISIS and they'll fight for it. But the Kurds are looking poised to link up in the north. I also anticipate they'll keep moving south from Qamishli to surround Hasakah from the east... but they'll probably stop there and hold, as liberating al-Raqqah (ISIS' capital) is not on their agenda. They're looking out for their own.


In Yemen, the government forces are so pressed by Houthi forces in the west that their eastern backyard has been almost entirely taken over by ISIS. There's little in the way of good news there, and the stalemate--like in Syria and Libya--just means more room for ISIS to maneuver. Saudi Arabia and Syria are more concerned with the Houthis than ISIS right now, so ISIS gets to roam free.


Similarly, stalemate here means ISIS gets room to play. The Tobruk government just can't bottle ISIS up in the east, and they're taking control of population centers. Ansar al-Sharia, an ISIS ally for the moment, holds parts of Benghazi. It looks like the government offensive towards Tripoli has stalled out completely. What's odd about this conflict is just how little fighting is actually happening. Looking at the Wikipedia article gives a sense of how oddly quiet the past few months have been, and how few casualties there are. I'm not sure why it's slowed down, particularly in the east (although gov't forces are still fighting in Benghazi).

Finally, a bit of good news. An ISIS member took a selfie at a big Syrian ISIS HQ, posted it with a location to the Internet, and that gave the US the intel necessary to bomb the HQ, destroying it completely. 
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