Syrian army convoy attacked by ISIS tank fire
The Islamic State’s summer offensive is in full spate on three fronts – two in Syria and a third in European cities – thus pricking the prevailing view of Western experts on Islamic terror that the caliphate’s territorial shrinkage in Syria and Iraq heralds its approaching demise
Some of the events of the last few days shed a more realistic light:
1. While Islamist forces were widely described as fleeing in panic from the major battlefronts of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, it turns out that they retreated in orderly military fashion while calculating how to preserve and deploy enough assets to initiate a broad counterattack.
This strategy hit the Syrian army with devastating effect on Thursday, Aug. 24. ISIS tanks came out of nowhere and surprised Syria’s elite Tiger Forces’ armored units and allied pro-Iranian Shiite militias, which had for some weeks been fighting to push ISIS out of the desert region east of Raqqa.
This surprise assault gave the jihadists the chance to snatch several villages southeast of Raqqa as well as Syrian camps and positions. Around 100 Syrian troops were left dead on the battleground and hundreds of walking wounded were seen fleeing.
This successful engagement gained ISIS control of the main desert highways leading to its current bastions at Mayadin and Abu Kamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border. No less strategically important, the Islamists won a vantage point for threatening the Iraqi Shiite Popular Mobilization Force (PMU) fighting under Iranian command to liberate the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar from Islamist occupation.
This danger is so acute, that for the first time ever, an Iraqi army contingent crossed into Syria on Friday, Aug. 25, as back-up for the Syrian army’s effort to throw back the ISIS assault.
This new Syrian-Iraqi military partnership-in-arms versus the Islamic State is coordinated by Iranian command centers in Syria and Iraq, which are overseen by Revolutionary Guards Corps General Qassem Soleimani.
Moreover, DEBKAfile’s military sources add that the Islamists have also managed to push the Syrian army and its allies, including Hizballah, back from the eastern Syrian Deir ez-Zour province on the southern bank of the Euphrates River.
Only last week, Syria’s General Staff claimed that the government’s army had crossed the river. This was an exaggeration. A small number of Syrian troops did cross to the other side, but were quickly destroyed before they had a chance to set up a bridgehead for controlling the valley section on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Russian air cover did not save them.
2. The number of boots on the ground against ISIS has shrunk massively since Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin decided to restrict US and Russian military involvement in Syria to air force operations. Air strikes too have been substantially cut back. No US or Russian special forces are therefore taking part in the current engagements against the Islamic State. The only place US officers are to be found directly commanding local forces is on the Raqqa front, where the Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) and the Kurdish YPG militia lead the field against the Islamists. However, ISIS is enabled by the relatively clear skies of hostile warplanes to whisk substantial forces at speed between the battlefronts of Syria and Iraq.
3. Four local armies are therefore waging the war on ISIS with limited US and Russian back-up. They are the Syrian army, Hizballah, the other pro-Iranian Shiite militias, including the Iraqi PMU, and the various Kurdish militias.
Because Trump and Putin are of one mind about reducing their military involvement in the current hostilities, Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu made no headway when he asked them to stop Iran and its pawns from gaining a permanent presence in Syria.
4. ISIS’ capture of new slices of territory in the Syrian Desert by force of arms confounds the widespread theory that the Islamists were boosting their terror activity in Europe to counteract their loss of battles and land in Syria and Iraq. Hence the Barcelona outrage last week.
However, DEBKAfile’s analysts have reached a different conclusion. ISIS is promoting two simultaneous campaigns. As their counteroffensives advance in Syria and Iraq, the jihadis are further developing their second front in Europe, with a major outbreak of terrorist attacks still to come.
The ISIS media machine works around the clock to pump out its core message of death and destruction worldwide, uninterrupted by ups or downs on the battlefield.
After Barcelona, more Islamist violence is to be expected in the towns of Europe. Counterterrorism services may prevent some, but certainly not all. Worth heeding are the words of Christoph Graf, command of the Swiss Guard at the Vatican, who warned Friday: “It could perhaps be just a matter of time before there is such an attack in Rome. But we are prepared.”