Islamic State hit but not slain – yet

Islamic State militants are under attack on all fronts. Soldiers and militias are pushing an offensive to dislodge the militants from Fallujah, the first major Iraqi city to fall to the group. Kurdish and Arab forces are fighting to capture the remaining stretch of Syrian territory along the Turkish border. In Libya, Islamic State’s stronghold in Sirte is under pressure.

The extremists are facing increased attacks that are often backed by air strikes from a United States-led coalition. But the group remains a powerful, well-resourced movement in light of the conflicting agendas of outside powers. Here’s what you need to know.

Blocking the border in Syria
Losing control of Syrian territory Islamic State holds along the border with Turkey would deny it access to a frontier it uses for smuggling weapons and fighters. The town of Manbij, northeast of the strategically important Aleppo province, is at the heart of the battle, said Faysal Itani, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

To Islamic State, Manbij represents a possible “entry point for enemies targeting the northern Aleppo countryside, and a potential staging point for a flanking operation against forces advancing on Raqqa city”, Itani said. 

Syrian government forces are pushing toward Raqqa, backed by Russian air strikes, and are 30km from the Al-Tabqa military base according to the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In Iraq, Fallujah lies just 50km west of Baghdad and its fall to Islamic State in early 2014 was a major humiliation for the Iraqi government, compounded by the loss of Mosul a few months later. 

Fallujah and nearby Ramadi are the main cities in Anbar province and home to leading Sunni tribes that the Shiite-dominated government must rally to its side. Taking Fallujah may hasten an assault on Mosul.

European nations watched Islamic State’s growth in Libya with alarm, given its proximity to Europe’s southern shores and more stable North African nations. Expelling the group from its foothold in Sirte would be a major relief for European leaders hit by Islamic State-inspired terror.

Are powers co-operating effectively against Islamic State?
Not always. American and allied planes are providing air support around Fallujah for the Iraqi military, which also benefits from the help of US special forces. Iraq’s powerful Shiite militia are backed by Iran. The Iraqi army and the militias co-operate, but the US and Iran have publicly ruled out working together.

Turkish soldiers frequently fire artillery at Islamic State forces in Syria in response to rocket attacks. But Turkey is hostile to Syrian Kurdish forces, one of the most successful groups in the battlefield against Islamic State. 

Turkish officials fear that the establishment of a de facto Kurdish state on their frontier in northern Syria would embolden Turkey’s own autonomy-seeking Kurdish groups.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government is supported by Russia and Iran as it battles the Islamic State and rebels. The US, European powers and Sunni Gulf monarchies demand Assad’s removal to end the country’s five-year war.

Putting Libya back together
Islamic State’s stronghold in Sirte is under pressure from Petroleum Facilities Guards from the east and militias from Misrata to the west. The new United Nations-backed unity government of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj is creating a joint command to merge the militias that support his administration. But the fight against Islamic State will include armed forces that don’t support Sarraj, such as eastern commander General Khalifa Haftar, who is arguably the biggest hurdle to reunifying Libya.

Egypt backed Haftar but other countries support Sarraj. They also helped Haftar because he has Libya’s most capable armed forces. 

French President François Hollande officially backs the unity government, but signed major weapons deals with Egypt. Some “may end up in Haftar’s hands” wrote Arturo Varvelli, a research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.

Is Islamic State on the back foot?
US military expert Colonel Steve Warren said last month that Islamic State has lost 45% of territory it once held in Iraq and 20% it controlled in Syria. 

Targeting oil infrastructure has cut the militants’ production by at least 30% and oil revenues by as much as 50%, he said. In Libya, Islamic State suffered defeats in Benghazi and was pushed from Derna by a local Islamist group.

Resistance will continue, and Islamic State has scored victories amid its defeats – a week into the campaign to retake Fallujah, Iraqi forces haven’t penetrated the city centre. — Bloomberg

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