Tuesday, May 3, 2016

ISIS kills US service member in Iraq.

An ISIS fighter firing on Peshmerga forces in Iraq. CBS.

ISIS has killed a US service member in Iraq in a battle north of Mosul. CBS News. The battle happened near Erbil and involved Kurdish and Christian forces as well. The soldier was assigned to a Peshmerga unit stationed miles behind enemy lines, but ISIS fighters broke through. The soldier was killed by direct fire from a rifle. The battle is being described as massive and part of a larger offensive. ISIS was briefly able to capture the Christian town of Teleskof but were unable to hold onto due to withering airstrikes and heavy resistance from Kurdish and Christian fighters. In total 29 airstrikes were leveled at the attackers near Erbil. It is unclear what branch the serviceman was serving in, but it is likely that he was a member of the US special forces. (EDIT: CNN is reporting that serviceman that was killed was a US Navy Seal, and not a US Army soldier. I regret the error, though in my defense it was reported as a probable soldier in the CBS report.)

My Comment:
My thoughts are with the family of this serviceman. It's always sad when we lose a soldier or Marine, but to lose one in this matter is not good. By all rights this serviceman shouldn't have been under threat. He was in the rear, reasonably far away from the front lines, but ISIS was able to break through. And it sounds like they shot him directly. Given the nature of his deployment we might not learn much more then what we know already. 

What we do know is that ISIS is looking to reclaim some of the lost territory the have lost control of this year. And it sounds like they almost succeeded. Teleskof was briefly taken by ISIS and was only abandoned due to US airstrikes and counter attacks by the Kurds and Christian militias in the area. It sounds like ISIS came very close to winning this battle and only lost in the end due to airstrikes and the fact that the Kurds didn't break. 

That surprises me. The media narrative lately has been that ISIS is on their backfoot. Until now I had little reason to doubt that but after this battle I am not so sure. The Iraq Kurds are not pushovers and the Peshmerga fighters have been one of the more effective fighting forces in the fight against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Seeing them barely holding onto a very important region tells me that ISIS is still a huge threat. 

I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised. ISIS has been very successful in moving their forces around and then striking elsewhere. For example, after the collapse of ISIS control of the city of Tikrit, ISIS was able to shift their forces and attacks from the northern part of the country, to the south. They then managed to take the city of Ramadi. Now that Ramadi and a few other cities in central Iraq, like Hit, have fallen, ISIS seems to be changing targets again, this time to the north against the Kurds. 

The difference this time is that the Kurds and Christians managed to hold on. No doubt a huge factor is the relative competency of the militia units compared to the Iraqi military. The Kurds are much less likely to break in the face of withering attacks like this one. The fact that the United States was able to provide massive amounts of air support, and presumably some support from ground forces as well, also helped. Still, this attack sounds like it almost worked for ISIS and given how weak they have been lately, that is somewhat shocking. 

Killing a US soldier will, of course, be a propaganda coup for ISIS. Even though they only killed one soldier, they did it in a way that was rather spectacular. Like I said before, this soldier was in what was perceived to be a relatively safe area. He was far away from the front lines, and ISIS was still able to shoot him. I would expect that ISIS will use this as both a recruitment tool and as a way to boost sagging morale. 

I also want to mention that the Christian militias were involved in this fight as well. There aren't many Christians left in Iraq but the ones that are still there are tough. They know that they will not be treated well by ISIS if they take over. Though ISIS treats Christians slightly better then other religious minorities, they are still second class citizens at best. They are given the choice to either flee, convert to Islam, or pay the Jizya tax. Or die. Admitedly, those choices are better then the ones given to other groups, like the Yazidi or Shiite Muslims, but ISIS actions against Christians essentially amount to genocide. 

The Christians that are still in Iraq are brave facing such a threat. Instead of fleeing or accepting their fate, they have picked up arms and have fought against ISIS. Though they are not as powerful as their Kurdish allies and neighbors, they are still a fighting force to respect. And it also shows that the Kurds in Iraq are one of the few factions left that are tolerant of other people. The Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims and they are about the only ones that aren't treating Christians horribly. As always, this aspect of the war against ISIS is almost criminally under-reported. 

Even though ISIS will likely lose this battle, if indeed it continues, they have shown that they are still capable of launching major conventional attacks. These attacks will greatly complicate Iraqi plans to liberate Mosul and finally kick ISIS completely out of Iraq. ISIS may have taken back some of the momentum they have lost after a long string of defeats. One thing is for sure, the plans to take back Mosul this year may have been very premature. Unless things change drastically, ISIS isn't going anywhere soon... 

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