Monthly Archives: June 2016

Russia Needs the Islamic State to Save Assad

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on June 20, 2016

Cross-posted at The Interpreter.

After a coalition supporting the regime of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad conquered the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS) in late March, suggestions were made that this demonstrated the efficacy of the pro-Assad coalition in fighting IS, and doubtless the same will be said if and when the pro-regime forces conquer Tabqa. It isn’t true. From the time of Russia’s direct intervention in Syria on 30 September 2015 to Moscow’s announcement on 14 March 2016 that it was withdrawing “the main part” of its “military” from Syria, IS was almost untouched and al-Qaeda was barely damaged, while the Assad regime was bolstered and the moderate opposition, particularly those components supported by the West, were gravely weakened.

Despite Moscow’s claims that its mission was fighting IS or “terrorism,” Russia’s real goals can be summarized as three:

  1. Rescue the Assad regime, which was assessed to be in mortal peril
  2. Damage the mainstream armed opposition, especially those elements supported by the West, in order that Russia can …
  3. Rehabilitate the Assad regime internationally by inter alia leaving only extremists as its opponents, depriving the international community of credible interlocutors, and therefore strengthening the Russian hand to make peace talks an instrument for re-legitimizing Assad, rather than removing him

In recent days, this basic war strategy has been seen again in southern Syria. Continue reading

Sectarian Provocations in Fallujah Undermine the Offensive Against the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on June 13, 2016

Published at The New Arab.

Qassem Suleimani and Jamal Ebrahimi (Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis) touring a battlefront in Fallujah

Qassem Suleimani and Jamal Ebrahimi (Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis) touring a battlefront in Fallujah

The Iraqi government announced an operation to clear the Islamic State (IS) out of Fallujah on the evening of 22 May. In the intervening three weeks, IS have lost numerous villages and towns around Fallujah and Iraqi counterterrorism forces are said to have entered Fallujah proper in the south.

As the first major city IS took on its way to proclaiming a caliphate in June 2014, the pace of the operation is not the most troubling element. What is disturbing—and what may ultimately undo any military success against IS—is the overtly sectarian nature of the offensive, led not by professional troops loyal to Baghdad, but by militias loyal to Iran and the extremist ideology of Tehran’s clerical regime. Continue reading

Don’t Count the Islamic State in Libya Down Yet

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on June 13, 2016

Islamic State convoy, Anbar Province, January 2014

Islamic State convoy, Anbar Province, January 2014

In Libya, the government of national accord (GNA)—in this case militias largely from western Libya, specifically Misrata, and the guards from the oil installations—claimed to have driven the Islamic State (IS) from Sirte on 11 June. Backed by artillery and airstrikes, with tanks moving in on the ground and some street clashes, the GNA-flagged troops had reached the city centre on 9 June. Expelled from Derna in the east in June 2015 and cleared from Sabratha in western Libya after a brief occupation earlier this year, this left Sirte as IS’s only major urban stronghold.

At the end of 2015, IS had controlled about 200 miles of coastline, from Abuqrayn (100 miles west of Sirte) to Nawafaliya (80 miles east of Sirte). On 12 May, an offensive began to take Sirte, coordinated through al-Bunyan al-Marsoos (The Solid Structure) Operations Room. The attack began from the Misratan militias in the west and by late May the eastern front had been opened up. At the end of May, IS lost Nawafaliya, and the collapse of territorial control has been steady since then, with IS now controlling about forty miles of coastline. A Libyan government official was quoted saying, “The battle wasn’t as difficult as we thought it would be.” While this is true—100 pro-GNA troops were killed and 500 wounded—there are reasons to be sceptical of the idea that this is the end for IS in Libya, and not just because IS still holds even areas of the Sirte.

IS had been in occupation of Sirte for almost exactly a year, meaning it has been able to accrue considerable resources, and had between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters in the city—composed of defectors from Ansar al-Shari’a (al-Qaeda), local tribes, elements of the fallen regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, and operatives from IS core. IS has made a show of resistance, but the number of reported IS casualties is low, and the speed with which IS has fallen back makes such early reports plausible. In combination with the continued politico-military dysfunction of the ostensible governing authorities, this is very worrying.

Continue reading

Is the Islamic State About to Kill Itself?

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on June 7, 2016

Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli, Amr al-Absi, Tarkhan Batirashvili

Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli, Amr al-Absi, Tarkhan Batirashvili

The Associated Press reported on Sunday that after a senior Islamic State (IS) commander was struck down by the international coalition in March it set off a witch-hunt inside the organization that led to the killing of thirty-eight IS jihadists at the hands of their own leaders. By AP’s account, IS is now consumed with internal suspicion. The story has some problems, however. Continue reading