While this year began with significant ISIS victories in Iraq’s Anbar Province and western Syria, it is ending with a number of significant defeats for the militant group. In the last week, the so-called Islamic State has lost two key areas – Ramadi in Iraq and Tishrin Dam in Syria – betraying their inability to hold their ground against combined arms offensives.
Over the last 24 hours, forces loyal to the Iraqi government have managed to capture the majority of Ramadi, capital of Anbar Province. The majority Sunni city was captured by ISIS in May this year, following a rout of ISF troops. This rout was eventually reversed and in the following months Iraqi forces, including the army and the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), managed to besiege the city and cut it off from other ISIS-controlled areas in Anbar such as Fallujah and Hit.
Beginning in late November, Iraqi forces began to make a final push into the city. Backed by Coalition air power they managed to push back ISIS fighters into an ever-dwindling pocket in the center of the city. Despite this, progress was very slow, due in large part to the many improvised minefields created by ISIS in their defence of the city, and their continued use of SVBIED spoiling attacks against Iraqi forces. Finally, between the 27th and 28th of December, Iraqi forces took control of the central government complex in Ramadi, used as an ISIS HQ, and thus ended any significant ISIS presence in the city.
While isolated pockets of resistance remain, the victory in Ramadi is significant in that it shows that Iraqi forces now have the organisation and manpower to capture large, Sunni-majority urban areas. Nonetheless, even more difficult fights lie ahead, as Iraqi forces redeploy to oust ISIS from Fallujah and Mosul.
Tishrin Dam, Syria
On the other side of the ‘Islamic State’, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a coalition of moderate FSA groups and the Kurdish YPG/J – managed to capture a large swathe of territory south of Kobane. Backed by Coalition (and according to some reports Russian) airstrikes, a large column of SDF vehicles pushed south from Sarrin, and captured the ISIS-held Tishrin Dam.
The capture of this dam is significant in that it functions as a strategic crossing point on the Euphrates River. With it now taken by the SDF, ISIS controlled-countryside west of the Euphrates is now under threat and indeed many reports indicate that the SDF has since crossed the river and moved to capture the town of Tishrin itself from ISIS.
Questions remain however, regarding how Turkey will respond to this advance. The country views the YPG, who make up the bulk of the SDF, as a PKK-aligned terror group working against Turkey’s interests. Many believe that the YPG continuing to expand across the Euphrates will cross a ‘red line’, triggering Turkish military action against them. Worryingly, Turkish PM Davutoğlu said today that Turkey will not allow any “hostile groups” to cross the Euphrates, something which appears to be a thinly veiled threat against the YPG and SDF.