Saturday, August 6, 2016

ISIS pushed out of northern Syrian city of Manbij.

A SDF fighter walking the the ruins of silos in Manbij. Reuters. 

ISIS has been largely pushed out of the northern Syrian city of Manbij. Reuters. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of Kurds and Arabs, have taken back 90% of the city. The SDF got assistance from US special forces and airstrikes. Some ISIS fighters remain in the city, but most have been killed or have fled. Manbij is a critical strategic location due to it's location near the Syria-Turkey border. 

My Comment:
Good news out of Syria if the story is reliable. I wasn't expecting Manbij to fall so soon. The SDF did a very good job of surrounding the city and clearing it of ISIS fighters. Though Manbij isn't a big city I was expecting this to take quite a bit longer then it did. Fighting in towns and cities is much more difficult then fighting in open areas. 

Losing Manbij is a major blow for ISIS. They are rapidly losing their access to the outside world. The border region with Turkey is their main supply line for recruits and equipment and with the loss of Manbij they are at risk of losing that line. There are still quite a few towns and cities that ISIS still holds on the border, but how long with that last? 

And it's not like the Syrians, be they the regime or the SDF, have to take all of those border towns and cities. What they can do is pinch off the line inside of Syria. Looking at various maps of the conflict it looks like there is a weak point between Manbij and al-Safira that the two groups could easily cut off ISIS forces if they focused on it. It would be a difficult fight to be sure, but doable if the SDF and regime worked together.

Too bad that the SDF and Syrian regime are very unlikely to work with each other. Though the Syrian regime and the Kurds have a decent relationship, the presence of Arab rebels in the SDF makes cooperation unlikely. The fact that the United States is backing the SDF complicates things for the Syrians as well. It's generally not a wise idea to work with people that are dedicated to overthrowing you, so I doubt the regime would get on board. I'm not expecting any coordination, even though doing so helps everyone involved. 

Sooner or later though, even without cooperation and coordination between the various factions, ISIS will lose their Turkish border outposts. What happens then? Well, that should be the beginning of the end for ISIS. Without access to Turkey, they don't have the ability to recruit from outside of Iraq and Syria. They also lose a supply line that handles military and economic goods for ISIS. In short, they lose a decent part of what makes the Islamic State an actual state. Losing the border area will be critical. 

More importantly, the town of Dabiq is now in play. Dabiq is a critical site in Islamic mythology and hugely important to ISIS symbolically. According to Islamic prophecy, Dabiq is one of two possible places where the final battle between good and evil is to happen before the world ends. The prophecy also states that faithful Muslims will be defeated in that battle only to rise again after fleeing to Israel, where Jesus, yes that Jesus, will lead the armies of Islam to defeat "Rome" once and for all.. Though that is all bunk, the people in ISIS believe it and will fight for Dabiq, to the point where I think they might allocate more resources to fight there then what is militarily necessary. Given that, it might really be the final battle against ISIS. It won't be the end of the world though. 

Still, Dabiq is still pretty far away from the front lines. And to be honest I don't know how much further the Kurds are willing to go. They do want to link up the western and eastern parts of their statelet, but nobody else really wants that to happen, especially the Turks. The Arab parts of the SDF aren't strong enough to stand on their own, so I am not expecting Dabiq to fall or for ISIS to be cut off from the Turkish border anytime soon.

After all, the Syrian regime is tied up right now in Aleppo. That city has been essentially cut off, with the regime taking control of the outskirts of the city. The rebels trapped inside are trying to escape and break out, so the regime is dedicating massive forces to the area to ensure that doesn't happen. That means, for now, that ISIS is largely safe from attacks from the regime. 

Still, ISIS is on the back foot, and once Aleppo falls, and it's a matter of when and not if now, the regime will be able to focus on fighting them again. When that happens all bets are off. I am not sure what the regime will do. One option is to push out to the besieged city of Dier ez-Zor in the east, which has been cut off for a very long time. Another would be to take the border region from ISIS, or even strike at Raqqa itself. My guess is that the regime will focus on the secular and not-so-secular rebels left in Syria. Al-Nusra, or whatever they are calling themselves these days, might be the better target since they are a much bigger threat to the regime...   

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