2 Jun 2015

Islamic State – a new grab for territory?

Islamic State has gained new momentum, capturing territory as it approaches the capitals of Syria and Iraq. With countries meeting in Paris to discuss combating IS, can its advance be halted?

World leaders from 20 countries meet in Paris today to assess efforts to defeat Islamic State (Isis), the terrorist group which has seized vast swathes of territory across the Middle East in the last year.

The meeting comes at a time of heighted urgency over what to do next following the militant group’s two swift victories in recent weeks. Late last month Isis seized control of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, a mere 60 miles west of Baghdad, while in Syria the group took control of Palmyra, the ancient city which is home to some the earth’s oldest artefacts.

The capture of Ramadi meant the militants also seized the al-Waleed border crossing, the last remaining bridge between Iraq and Syria that they did not already hold. This effectively now means Syria no longer has any common border with Iraq, and with similar losses to al-Qaeda further south, neither has much of a border with Jordan either.

For a military group intent on creating a so-called caliphate in the heart of the Middle East, this is an undisputable step closer to a final realisation of that ambition.

Where next?

Conquering both Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria also makes the once unforeseeable prospect of Isis moving simultaneously into both countries’ respective capitals, Baghdad and Damascus feasible, at least on paper. This, just a few months ago, was a scenario that was considered strategically impossible.

Meanwhile in Libya, a separate branch of the militant group that controls the Libyan coastal city of Sirte has expanded its territory and pushed back militia from the neighbouring city of Misrata. The continued expansion of the group inside Libya has alarmed western officials because of its proximity to Europe.

Little wonder that Washington faces calls that the US is losing control of events in the region.

Analysts suggest Isis now practically holds half of Syria, with much of the rest held by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda that has fought the Kurds in the past. The group also continues to seize vital oil regions, and has solidified its control over the strategic cities of Mosul and Raqqa – the Syrian town that has become the militant group’s de facto capital.


This latest surge of momentum is all the more remarkable given the group’s failure to conquer the Syrian border city of Kobani after a totemic four-month battle earlier this year. So what has changed? Firstly, the local forces on the ground appear incapable of defending territory. The fearsome reputation that Isis has instilled in its opponents means that the group is met with less resistance than ever before.

Secondly, the lack of coalition air cover has buoyed Isis fighters, while internal differences over the common enemy among Syrian forces means the armies lack clear purpose.

Dr Afzal Ashraf a consultant fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) told Channel 4 News: “In Iraq you’re seeing a clear lack of leadership and control as well as the consequences of gaps in coalition air-cover due to weather effects.

“Meanwhile in Syria you’re seeing overstretched government forces that are being attacked by rebel groups armed and supported by regional powers and the demands of international community. So Assad’s forces and are simply not in a position to hold back any concerted ISIS advance.”

Dr Ashraf says that the failures are no surprise. “The coalition has failed to abide by a couple of fundament principles of military strategy. One is singularity of command. In Iraq there is no singularity of command and it seems what coordination that exists between Iraqi forces and the coalition is utterly inadequate.

“The other is singularity of aim. In Syria there is no singularity of aim. It seems that the international community wants to simultaneously defeat President Assad and Isis. If anything they are prioritising the war against Assad. Weakening Assad strengthens ISIS. That is why Palmyra fell and why Isis will continue to strengthen in Syria.”

Genocide, cultural cleansing and an endgame that could even see two countries eventually fall into the hands of Isis. Today’s talks in Paris are unlikely to glean quick answers. But the urgency to act has never been more pressing.

As the West assesses its few available options, expect clichéd calls for “boots on the ground” to resurface from some who will argue a more direct military strategy is the only way of stemming the advance. This time, unlike last year, its dismissal as an option may not be so immediate. Especially if the situation becomes even more serious.