Why Is IS Still Gaining Ground?

Why Is IS Still Gaining Ground?Why Is IS Still Gaining Ground?

The IS militant group in May captured two major cities in Syria and Iraq, Palmyra and Ramadi. Despite months of military attacks from the Iraqi and Syrian armies, and US-led airstrikes, why has IS made gains? When IS was repelled from the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobane, and Iraqi city of Tikrit earlier this year, the group was widely believed to have lost momentum. But, its takeover of Ramadi and Palmyra has put IS back on the map.

IS took control of Ramadi, the western capital of Anbar Province, on May 17, launching the invasion with six suicide bombs. The group publicized videos and images of its invasion online, and circulated photographs showing hundreds of beheaded Iraqi brigade members. Ramadi’s fall represents the Iraqi government’s worst defeat, since IS captured Mosul in 2014.

Ramadi is strategically significant, located near the last remaining border crossing between Syria and Iraq. Now that the city is under IS control, the flow of militants between the two countries will likely increase, potentially threatening the safety of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, Mend Mariwany wrote for Muftah.

Three days after Ramadi’s capture, IS took over Palmyra, located 240 km to the northeast of Damascus and known for its large, ancient ruins. IS quickly placed the city under a curfew. Its militant members decapitated government officials, soldiers, and police officers, publicizing images of the brutal campaign online, while simultaneously showing footage of IS adherents distributing bread from local bakeries to Palmyra residents.

Thousands have escaped the city, which housed approximately 70,000 until the IS onslaught. Palmyra’s fall means IS now occupies approximately 50 percent of Syria, including most of the country’s oil and gas fields.

Events in Ramadi and Palmyra represent a heavy setback for the ongoing military campaign against IS, and point to the challenges facing these efforts at routing the group. Both the Syrian and Iraqi armies are too weak to lead the charge against IS. Iraq’s Army is made up of poorly trained and equipped soldiers.

While the United States has maintained airstrikes against IS, together with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE, its campaign has barely weakened the group. In fact, when IS marched through the open desert toward Palmyra and Ramadi, it did so without facing military attacks or airstrikes from the coalition, raising suspicion about the US commitment to the campaign.

Other regional countries may also be contributing to IS’s advances. For instance, a report published by Reuters on May 21, revealed that Turkey’s state intelligence agency helped deliver arms shipments to militant groups affiliated with IS in Syria, between 2013 and 2014. It is unlikely that Turkey is the only country in the region to have been involved in these sorts of dealings.

Any military campaign committed to destroying IS must be based on close coordination and collaboration between regional countries. Without this, IS will undoubtedly continue gaining ground in Iraq and Syria.