MS Risk Blog

The battle against ISIS: Iraq and Syria

Posted on in Uncategorized title_rule

Last month both Iraq and Syria declared victory over the Islamic State with reports stating that ISIS lost 98 percent of the territory it once held in both regions. However, last Monday two suicide bombers managed to launch an attack in a busy market, in central Baghdad, killing at least 38 people and injuring hundreds. Although no terrorist group has claimed responsibility, the Islamic State group is suspected to be behind the bombing as it has claimed such attacks in the past. In December, the government announced that ISIS had been expelled from the Baghdad region and urban areas of Iraq that it controlled. Nevertheless, Jihadist elements are still active; on Saturday, a suicide bomb attack near a security checkpoint killed at least five people in northern Baghdad. There was also no immediate claim of responsibility for that bombing. The bombings come as Iraq gears up for elections in May, raising questions about the government’s readiness to deal with the security challenges posed by the group’s retreat to its insurgent roots. Analysts have warned that ISIS would increasingly turn to such tactics as it was pushed underground after losing territory on both Iraq and Syria.

On the other hand, in Syria a government bombardment killed 17 civilians on Saturday across the besieged opposition enclave of Eastern Ghouta- which has been under government siege since 2013. The United Nations has said about 500 people are in critical condition inside Eastern Ghouta and need to be evacuated for urgent medical treatment. In the first 14 days of the year, more than 30 children were killed in Eastern Ghouta, a report by UNICEF found. Last week, at least 25 civilians were reported killed in air strikes on two towns in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta. The air raids are believed to be part of the government’s assault on rebel-held positions in Eastern Ghouta, a neighbourhood near Damascus. A missile was also fired last week in Syria’s Idlib province at a makeshift camp for displaced people from the nearby Hama province. In the past week, tens of thousands of civilians in the north-western Idlib province have been uprooted, many of them for a second or third time, by Russian and Syrian airstrikes. In total, more than 200,000 people have fled. Last week, aid workers told BBC that at least 10 hospitals in rebel-held areas of Syria had suffered direct air or artillery attacks within a 10-day period.

And while the battle against the rebels continues with more people suffering catastrophic consequences, experts both in and outside the U.S. government warn that ISIS remains a lethal threat, as it demonstrated by a double suicide bombing in Baghdad on Monday. Hisham al-Hashimi, an adviser to the Iraqi government in its battle against ISIS, told NBC News that while the number of active fighters on the battlefield is probably in the range of 1,000 to 1,500, the actual number of ISIS-loyalists in Iraq and Syria is closer to 10,000. In the meantime, the manhunt for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi continues across Iraq and Syria with the US looking optimistic of his location.

A few days ago, the US army announced the troop and military personnel will continue their presence in both Iraq and Syria in order to ensure the regional stability. This announcement comes amid growing dissatisfaction towards the US- led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria which have resulted, according to reports, in thousands of civilian casualties- 31 times more civilians than the number of the casualties stated by the US army. But news broke on 13 January that the US was helping the Syrian Democratic Forces (an alliance of militias in northern and eastern Syria dominated by the Kurdish YPG) build a new “border security force”- an announcement that enraged Turkey which considers the force to be a “terror army”.

Meanwhile, Turkey since the 20th January has begun assault operations on Afrin, aiming to clear the Kurdish forces from the region. Nonetheless, a siege in Afrin could have further humanitarian consequences in Syria- Kurdish officials saying that there could be 1 million people living in the area. And while Russia has stated that will not be part of the conflict, it is suspected that since Russia controls the territory’s airspace therefore Turkey’s airstrikes must have had Russian clearance.

However, while the battle against ISIS is coming to an end, neither Iraq or Syria can count themselves as whole even with the territory reclaimed. In Iraq, the Kurdish minority in the country’s northeast voted to break away from Iraq and with the upcoming elections concern is rising. In Syria, the six-year long civil war continues with only a shaky vision of an end in sight. On the other hand, both ISIS-free Iraq and Syria will likely feature more powerful actors such as Iran, Saudi Arabia or Israel competing for greater influence with the US. The Syrian government stated on Thursday that a U.S. military presence in Syria represented an “aggression” against Syrian authority, and vowed to free the country from any “illegitimate” foreign presence. At the same time the humanitarian crisis deepens with millions uprooted, several killed from airstrikes, and others succumbed from starvation or the freezing temperatures while trying to cross to Lebanon.