ISTANBUL — ISIS is on the defensive across Syria, Iraq and Libya as U.S.-backed forces pound its strongholds in simultaneous offensives — but each battle is being led by the wrong group, with the potential to further exacerbate and complicate the conflicts.
In northern Syria, anti-ISIS militants backed by U.S. airpower have taken villages near Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate. In Anbar, Iraq’s largest province, security forces have moved in towards Fallujah, which has been under ISIS control since early 2014. On the outskirts of Sirte, the group’s stronghold in Libya, fighters from Tripoli have recaptured positions they gave up to the jihadis more than a year ago.
The various efforts against ISIS are yielding battlefield successes but are not part of a cohesive plan, and any tactical gains are piecemeal. The same regional rivalries that undermined the anti-ISIS fight two years ago still remain, and may have even worsened.
The various competing sectarian, religious and political factions on the battlefield have their own interests at heart in the fight against ISIS. The militant group feeds off the grievances of Sunni Muslims across the Arab world, and there has been little or no political progress to undermine its ideology.
“What’s lacking in the strategy is a Sunni-related problem,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt, head of Middle East and North Africa for Verisk Maplecroft, a London-based risk analysis and consultancy firm. “Sunni states and Sunni forces have to be part of the solution. While there’s a tactical aspect that seems sophisticated, if there’s no overarching political strategy that includes all the interested parties it’s not going to work in the long term.”
In Syria, U.S.-backed forces have taken territory from ISIS in and around Raqqa. But the battle is being led by a force under the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, an offshoot of the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which is widely mistrusted by the city’s Arabs. In Iraq, a mosaic of forces that includes powerful Shia militias — some with training from and suspected organizational ties to Iran — are closing in on the Sunni city of Fallujah. However, many contend that the hastily announced offensive is meant more to distract from troubles in the capital, where protesters have repeatedly stormed parliament and lawmakers refuse to approve Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s cabinet, than to free Fallujah from ISIS.
In Libya, fighters from the city of Misrata — resented by many in the country as descendants of Turks — are despised for destroying Sirte, hometown of deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi. Yet, they are the main force from the West moving in on the coastal city. Arrayed around Mosul, Kurdish peshmerga forces attempt to tighten the noose on an overwhelmingly Arab city.
It’s not inevitable that the Misratans entering Sirte, Kurds entering Raqqa and Mosul or Shias entering Fallujah will commit atrocities against sectarian, ethnic or regional rivals. Each group has exercised restraint in the past, especially when their actions were under intense international scrutiny and when senior clergymen or political figures applied pressure.
Battlefield victories against ISIS are undeniably important. They chip away at ISIS’s reputation as invincible, dissuade fresh recruits and prevent it from expanding its turf or organize attacks abroad. The victories may even ease some political pressure.
“You need to make some progress on the military challenges in order to make political progress,” said Douglas Ollivant, a fellow at the New America Foundation and former adviser to the U.S. military in Iraq. “Some of these political problems can’t be addressed without making political headway.”
But winning the broader ideological war has proved far more elusive. The battlefield advances against ISIS in Syria, Iraq and Libya have been untethered to any resolution of the deep political problems that gave way to its rise and its ability to find shelter in ungoverned spaces across the Sunni Muslim world.
“There’s a real dilemma because ISIS is seen as a threat and a transnational one,” said Joost Hiltermann, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Crisis Group. “If it isn’t kept on the defensive in Iraq and Syria and Libya and elsewhere, it will strike out again [and] maybe gain new territory and/or carry out attacks on the West.”
Furthermore, U.S. Special Forces are embedded with anti-ISIS armed forces in all three countries, serving as advisers, providing air support, and acting as trusted eyes on the ground for war planners at Pentagon. But on the ground, the military efforts against ISIS are piecemeal and U.S. military officials say bureaucratic obstacles prevent them from passing on intelligence from, say, Libya to Egypt, without having to go through Washington.
“There are tribes within the U.S. security apparatus,” said Ollivant. “There is the Joint Special Operations Command that has its rivalry with big army, the CIA differs with the DIA [Defense Intelligence], let alone the State Department, and not one of them is in lockstep with the White House.”
Coordination between European armed forces is even worse.
“Even among the EU member states, militaries don’t talk to each other at the highest levels about Libya operations,” said Hiltermann.
As if that weren’t enough, worsening hostility pervades throughout the Middle East among members of the coalition fighting ISIS. Iran and Saudi Arabia, which broke off diplomatic relations earlier this year, continue to compete for regional dominance. Turkey treats Syria’s Kurds, led by an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, as a terrorist organization. Jordan recently described Turkey as a global sponsor of terrorism. Meanwhile, Egypt and Turkey find themselves supporting opposing players in Libya. To make things worse, relations between the U.S. and Russia, whose intervention in Syria has made the conflict even more complicated, remain frayed.
“The U.S. is part of the problem,” said Soltvedt. “There has been a lack of leadership and a lot of indecision. But it’s a very difficult issue. The U.S. has a stake. Iran has a stake. Saudi [Arabia] has a stake. Turkey has a stake.”
On the ground, the animosities play out dangerously. In recent days, the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces, backed by U.S. airpower, have been lunging toward Raqqa as Syrian regime forces, backed by Russian airpower, announced they were also making a move on the city.
In Libya, Misratans’ move toward Sirte has been followed by an announcement that Libyan forces backed by General Khalifa Haftar, who commands an army loyal to Libya’s other government, is also moving in on city. Western Special Forces operatives are reportedly embedded within each camp.
Iraq’s armed forces, Kurdish militias and Shia militias jostle for power position and credibility as battles mount, watching each other while keeping an eye on ISIS positions across the front lines. Fighting broke out earlier this year between Kurdish and Shiite militia right after the liberation of ISIS-held territories near Tuz Khurmatu in northern Iraq.
Ollivant likened the U.S. dilemma to coming up with a strategy to play chess while the rooks, knights and pawns develop minds of their own and keep making surprise maneuvers. “The U.S. is trying to puppetmaster some kind of strategy,” said Ollivant. “But you can’t make a strategy when all the pieces on the chessboard move on their own.”