Local Setbacks Slow US-Russian Momentum against ISIS in Iraq, Syria

It is no longer doubted that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is falling back in Iraq and Syria.
In his testimony to Congress this week, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter sounded optimistic: “The momentum of the campaign against ISIS is clearly on our side,” he said. Allied forces are “systemically eliminating” the ISIS cabinet.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified, “This is a long fight and I’m confident in telling you we have the momentum.” Six months ago, that momentum belonged to ISIS. Since then, “they not only have less territory, they have less resources; they have less freedom of movement.”
At the same time, Washington is only very slowly beginning to build on these advantages because it is held back by political and military complications in both Iraq and Syria.
Elite Iraqi forces trained by the US have started an operation to force ISIS out of a number of cities in central and western Iraq, especially Hit and Fallujah. Those cities are not about to fall yet; the attackers are moving into their outskirts and taking up positions for an all-out attack at some future date.
Last month, a key US forward base was set up at Makhmour. This was a big step on the way to a major offensive for the recovery of Mosul, 66 kilometers to the southeast, which the Islamic State has made its capital in Iraq.
This week, in the early morning hours of April 5, an Iraqi force made up of the infantry Brigade 91 and other troops deployed outside al-Nasr, an ISIS-held strategic village north of Makhmour, where fighting had been raging for almost a week. Here too, they stood poised for the big offensive.
The Pentagon and US generals in Iraq (there are at least 12) are sticking to a cautious strategy of advancing on Mosul and other ISIS strongholds in small steps, lest they be caught out by sudden setbacks.
At least two are all too predictable:
1. Iraqi forces may cave in and flee in the face of an ISIS counterattack. In the summer of 2014, under the initial Islamic State’s assault, seven Iraqi army divisions scattered and fled, dumping their shiny new American equipment and arms for the jihadists to collect.
2. Neither can any US field commander rule out a possible political crisis in Baghdad causing the Iraqi assault force to turn tail on the way to Mosul and head back to Baghdad. The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, already in shaky position, could summon the troops to the capital to save his regime. That contingency would blow the entire Mosul offensive off-course. So too could a power struggle among Iraqi generals, if it caused their followers to desert the battlefield.
In Syria, the war on ISIS is by and large going well, but DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report growing unease over the Palmyra operation.
The Russians and the Syrian army captured that historic city in a blaze of victory. But intelligence experts who took a second look at the operation discovered two disturbing facts:
a) Visitors after its capture found plenty of damage to relics caused by ISIS in nearly a year of occupation, but were struck by finding no sign that a battle had been fought in the town or its environs – aside from the craters left by Russian bombers. No dead or wounded ISIS fighters were to be found.
b) ISIS forces retreated from Palmyra in two orderly columns, one heading northwest toward Raqqa headquarters and one south (as we reported in the last issue of DEBKA Weekly).
But strangely enough, they did not cover their exit with defensive measures; neither were they subjected to Russian or Syrian air strikes on the roads out of the city.
Those discoveries have sparked speculation among rebel officers that the Russian and Syrian commanders conspired with ISIS for a truce which allowed its fighters to leave the city without a battle and unscathed.
If proven, this conspiracy would mean that, instead of going all out to vanquish ISIS forces in Syria, the Russians and/or the Syrian army let the jihadists off the hook to carry on fighting.
A week after the Palmyra victory on March 27, Islamic State forces relinquished their grip on the Christian town of Qaryatain,100km to the west. It is suggested that this small town was part and parcel of the suspected Palmyra deal with ISIS.
Otherwise, it is also worth noting that the Syrian army, fighting with Hizballah and foreign pro-Iranian Shiite militias, has made no real advances on the battlefield since Palmyra and fighting without Russian air support. Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to trying to teach Syrian President Bashar Assad that, without Russian help, he faces certain defeat.

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