Smoke rises after an U.S. airstrike, while the Iraqi army pushes into Topzawa village during the operation against Islamic State militants near Bashiqa, near Mosul, Iraq October 24, 2016..
(photo credit: AHMED JADALLAH / REUTERS)
Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led operation to destroy Islamic State, continued to target the extremists over the last week as combat drags on in the desert regions between Syria and Iraq, even though the governments in both countries have declared victory over the Sunni terrorist group in the last months.
In Iraq the coalition conducted six air strikes between December 22 and 28. Although one of them was in western Iraq near Al-Asad, the other five were near Hawija, Mosul and Jalula (Jalawla), which are areas that the coalition and Iraqi forces have taken over the last year. In Hawija, which was liberated from ISIS in September, three strikes targeted a fighting position, a cave and tunnel entrances.
This indicates that ISIS is attempting to go underground as it seeks to survive the immense power of the coalition and the Iraqi security forces. In the last week ISIS members have assassinated local officials and commanders in the government’s paramilitary Shi’ite militia known as Hashd al-Shaabi, reports from Iraq indicate. ISIS remnants have sought to regroup near Hawija and in the Hamreen mountains where the militias and Iraqi forces have been hunting them.
The operation Iraq launched to take Hawija in September went quickly, because Baghdad also wanted to take Kirkuk from the Kurdish Regional Government that had carried out an independence
referendum. It now appears that the speed of that offensive left behind numerous ISIS members in rural areas who have returned to their terrorist and insurgent roots.
In Syria the coalition carried out 28 strikes between December 22 and 28. All but one were in the area around Abu Kamal on the border with Iraq. The Syrian regime liberated Abu Kamal from ISIS in November, backed by Shi’ite militias and other allies. On the other side of the Euphrates the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were also liberating areas near the town.
ISIS was left with a small pocket along the river between the regime forces and the American-backed forces. In the last weeks the coalition has struck a building, a headquarters unit, heavy machine-gun posts, vehicles and numerous ISIS units. The coalition defines a strike broadly, as engagements by aircraft, drones or artillery.
The picture painted on the ground in Syria and Iraq is that despite declarations of victory, ISIS has not been defeated. It continues to exist in a different form in the desert and increasingly melting into the Sunni civilian population.
This brings back memories of the battle against insurgents and terrorists in Iraq after the US-led
“surge” in 2007. Things are different now with local forces leading the way and the US focusing on air strikes, special operations and training. Whether these remaining ISIS elements will all be defeated and the air campaign come to a close will be decided in 2018.