After a string of victories by Iraqi and Kurdish forces against ISIS over the past two weeks, the rumors started popping up online: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, had been replaced by his Syrian deputy, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani.
The rumors were untrue, but they were the first clear evidence that the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS has actually started to work. The past two weeks have seen Iraqi military victories near Baghdad, and in the Diyala, Salahuddin, and Ninevah provinces to the east and north of the city.
Coalition airstrikes have significantly increased and improved over the past two weeks. In Mosul alone, two separate sources confirmed that no fewer than 150 ISIS fighters were killed in the last 10 days of October and more were injured in air raids. In retribution, ISIS arrested eight Iraqi reporters in Mosul and dozens of Iraqi army and police officers, fearing that they were planning to join a newly formed Arab Sunni force in Kurdistan aiming to recapture Mosul.
Since the U.S.-led air campaign began, at least 1,000 ISIS fighters have been killed by the air bombardment, Iraqi security analyst Hisham al-Hashimi said. The ISIS military commander of Nineveh province, Bashar al-Jarjari, and his counterpart in Salahuddin province, Ala’ al-Mashhadani, as well as ISIS leaders in Fallujah and Ramadi provinces in the south and religious leader Mustafa al-Zaidi were among those killed in air raids and ground fighting.
Other signs of progress include a decline in the number of foreign ISIS fighters who had been sneaking into Syria from Turkey, from an average of 50 fighters a day to an estimated five per day. ISIS’s recruiting campaign has also been damaged by the removal of more than 180,000 ISIS Twitter accounts and YouTube videos from the Internet. ISIS has also suffered from self-imposed communication problems due to a ban it issued on using smartphone applications because it feared U.S. surveillance.
A Turning Point
With defeats on all these fronts and sagging recruitment, ISIS is showing signs of desperation. This week the jihadists targeted a Sunni tribe that had fought ISIS for months to protect the town of Hit in al-Anbar province, which fell to ISIS last month. In a barbaric attack, ISIS fighters executed more than 300 members of the Albu Nimir tribe, including 50 women and children whose bodies were dumped in a well.
The latest massacre was the largest against the Iraqi Sunnis since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. As a result of the violence, many tribes in Anbar joined forces against ISIS. On a single day, 3,000 tribal fighters joined, al-Hashimi confirmed.
With losses mounting, ISIS has begun shifting its leadership. ISIS leader Baghdadi fired the ISIS governor of Salahuddin and replaced the military commander of the province. Baghdadi also made changes to his group’s leadership in Syria.
Iraq’s New Security Approach
The latest Iraqi victories are also the first indication of the success of the new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s security approach. Last month, Abadi appointed Ministers of Defense and Interior after those posts were vacant for four years. He also dissolved the office of Commander in Chief that his predecessor had used to run the security forces, and he fired several senior military commanders. Iraqi forces have made tactical changes as well, such as using some of ISIS’s guerilla warfare tactics to take advantage of ISIS’s inability to maneuver in long convoys as a result of U.S. air raids.
The recent victories against ISIS include:
- On the Baghdad front, the Iraqi special forces and the Shiite militias led by the newly appointed Minister of Interior have taken the strategic town of Jurf al-Sakhar, 40 miles to the southwest of Baghdad. This area is a massive space connecting al-Anbar province in the west with the Iraqi south.
- In the province of Diyala to the northeast of Baghdad, Iraqi forces cleared much of the mountains of Himrin, a major stronghold for ISIS and a hideaway that also serves as a crossing point between the provinces of Diyala, Salahuddin and Kirkuk.
- In the province of Salahuddin to the north of Baghdad, Iraqi forces and affiliated militias regained control of most of the town of Baiji, where Iraq’s largest oil refinery is located. The refinery had been kept out of ISIS’s control, but a new offensive under a new government commander of the military operations in Salahuddin, has helped retake much of Baiji, according to a McClatchy report.
- In Nineveh province in the north, where the city of Mosul is located, the Kurdish Peshmergacontrolled the town of Zummar to the northwest of Mosul after taking the border town of Rabia few weeks ago, closing the Iraqi/Syrian border there on ISIS.
- ISIS’s elite “shield of Islam” unit has lost much of its force, according to al-Hashimi, who said the group’s military council has been “significantly damaged, too.”
In addition, Iraqi Kurdish fighters have helped the cause in Syria. Kurdish defenders of the city of Kobani have battled ISIS fighters for weeks, with new reinforcements in the form of hundreds of armed fighters from both Syria and Iraq as well as U.S. air drops of military supplies.
A Long War Ahead
Despite the crucial gains made by the Iraqi military and U.S.-led air raids, the war with ISIS is still in its early phase. ISIS still has about 40,000 active fighters, with 18,000 of them in Iraq. Sleeper cells, with around 60,000 members are waiting for a chance to act in Iraq and Syria, al-Hashimi added. With all of these assets, ISIS is engaging in seven battlefronts in Iraq and 10 in Syria.
Despite the progress in Iraq, government forces there have not been able to clear ISIS from the big cities. For example, ISIS booby-trapped so many buildings in the city of Tikrit that it made it very difficult for any force to deploy. Both Mosul and Fallujah will also be difficult to clear.
American advisors have suggested that Iraq form a national guard to clear the Sunni cities. Yet draft legislation to introduce a national guard has been derailed by sectarian interpretations and heavy criticism by Iraqi Kurds and Shiites. The Kurds have said that they will never accept a non-Kurdish force in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Shiites have protested that the draft would give the Sunni insurgents and tribal fighters a way to form their own army.
The situation in Syria remains even more challenging. Except for the city of Kobani, ISIS is still making gains, taking control of two gas fields near the city of Homs in a week. Also, the Nusra front, al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has defeated the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army in Edlib and captured much of its U.S.-supplied weapons. The Free Syrian Army still needs more fighters and more training, equipment, morale, and time to be able to counter ISIS and the al-Nusra front.