Since January the tide has turned dramatically against ISIS on almost every front
The Iraqi army began its operation to liberate Mosul in October. Contrary to initial expectations it encountered fierce resistance and the first part of the operation, which was focused on liberating Mosul east of the Tigris proved exceptionally difficult. Eventually eastern Mosul was liberated but only after many weeks of fierce fighting and after the Iraqi army suffered heavy casualties.
When the Iraqi army recently launched its offensive to liberate Mosul west of the Tigris it was assumed that ISIS would offer similarly fierce resistance. Moreover the layout of western Mosul, with its maze of narrow streets and its overwhelmingly Sunni population some of whom are believed to sympathise with ISIS, was expected to favour the organisation.
In the event the Iraqi army seems to be advancing in western Mosul much faster than anyone expected. Several districts of western Mosul have already been freed from ISIS and the Iraqi army appears now to be within reach of the crucial buildings in the centre of the city where ISIS is believed to have its headquarters. Meanwhile it seems that ISIS fighters in the city are now completely surrounded.
A possible explanation for ISIS’s relative failure in western Mosul is that its leader Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (“the Caliph Ibrahim”) is believed (according to US military reports) to have fled the city just before the ISIS fighters there were cut off. It is possible that the flight of their leader has demoralised the 4,000 of so ISIS fighters believed to be still left in the city.
Whilst most media attention has been on the fight for Mosul, ISIS’s position in northern Syria has collapsed following a triumphant advance of the Syrian army eastwards from Aleppo. A few days ago the Syrian army reached Lake Assad – Syria’s largest freshwater lake – and the Euphrates river for the first time since 2012, further cutting off lines of advance by the Turkish army towards Raqqa, and putting the Syrian army for the first time in years within striking range of Raqqa itself.
In token of their victory the Syrian troops filled two water bottles with Euphrates war, which they have gifted to the Russian military by way of thanks for the Russian air support which made their victory possible. The bottles are being sent to Moscow where they may be presented to President Putin himself.
The liberation of this huge area by the Syrian army and its arrival at the shores of Lake Assad has had the important incidental benefit of securing Aleppo’s water supply, which is provided by Lake Assad. Since the liberation of eastern Aleppo in December ISIS has been trying to cut off Aleppo’s water supply, in particular by turning off a key water filtration plant treating the waters of Lake Assad. The filtration plant is now under Syrian control and for the first time since the Syrian army was driven from the area during the Jihadi offensive known as Operation Damascus in the summer of 2012 Aleppo’s water supply has been fully secured.
Meanwhile US and Russian backed Kurdish forces, supported by 500 US Special Forces and 400 US Marines, are also pressing their advance on Raqqa. It seems that Raqqa is now essentially surrounded and that its communications with ISIS forces in Iraq, in central Syria and in Deir Ezzor have been cut off.
There is now a real possibility of a “race to Raqqa” between the Syrian army and the Kurdish militia, whose de facto alliance is far from easy. One of the purposes of the recent meetings between General Dunford of the US and General Gerasimov or Russia is almost certainly to ensure at least a measure of cooperation between the two.
3. Central Syria
ISIS’s capture of Palmyra in December proved ephemeral. The Syrian army backed by Russian Special Forces and the Russian air force recaptured the ancient city a short time ago. The Syrian army has also been methodically recapturing gas fields in the area.
With ISIS being defeated in Mosul and Raqqa effectively surrounded the prospects of a third ISIS attempt to capture Palmyra now look remote.
4. Deir Ezzor
The one point where ISIS continues to hold the upper hand is in its siege of the eastern desert city of Deir Ezzor.
During the major ISIS offensive in January ISIS fighters succeeded in cutting Deir Ezzor off from its airport. Repeated attempts by the Syrian troops in Deir Ezzor to break through to the aid of the Syrian troops defending the airport have so far been unsuccessful. The reason for this is that with the Syrian troops in Deir Ezzor entirely surrounded and cut off from reinforcement and resupply, the Syrian troops in the city have to husband their men and ammunition, which prevents them from launching the sort of all-out attacks which are needed to restore the situation.
There is some speculation that with ISIS about to lose Mosul, and with its position in Raqqa looking ever more precarious, the organisation is now focusing its remaining resources on capturing Deir Ezzor where it intends to relocate its capital.
The situation in Deir Ezzor therefore continues to be critical, and with the city 200 km from Palmyra over difficult ISIS controlled country and at the operational limit of Russian aircraft flying from western Syria, the success of its defence is far from assured.
The desperate situation in Deir Ezzor notwithstanding, the situation on the various battlefields shows ISIS coming under increasing pressure and in full retreat. The organisation is not yet defeated and it still has thousands of fighters. However with the US and Russia finally working with each other, however discreetly, the forces which are coming together to defeat ISIS – the Syrian army, the Iraqi army, the Kurdish militia, the Iranians, and the airforces and Special Forces of the world’s two military superpowers, the US and Russia – look overwhelming, and the organisation’s days look well and truly numbered.