Since early 2015 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has lost over half of the Iraqi and Syrian territory it seized in 2014. ISIL income for Syria and Iraq has been cut nearly 60 percent as well. In 2016 personnel losses have been heavy as well meaning there is little hope moving reinforcements into Syria or Iraq. ISIL is under the most pressure in Iraq but Syria is no longer a safer place for ISIL men to flee to. The growing number of ISIL deserters provide more details about what is happening in ISIL controlled territory. The increasingly effective air strikes are indeed happening because of more local informants as well as relaxed ROE (Rules of Engagement that now ignore the use of human shields). The aerial bombings have more frequently hit ISIL leaders and caused a lot more ISIL casualties in general. ISIL leaders are, at least according to deserters, often visibly uneasy and some have been publically executed for various failings. Lower ranking ISIL men are worse off, in part because of reduced pay (or no pay at all) and even essential supplies like food and ammo are not always available. The more frequent use of public executions is driving more ISIL fighters and support personnel away even as it becomes more difficult and dangerous to leave.
Most ISIL controlled territory is in eastern Syria and western Iraq (Anbar province). Both these areas have a largely Sunni Arab population but are also mostly desert or semi-desert. Most of the population is concentrated in or near towns and cities along the few rivers. Aside from Mosul in northwest Iraq, ISIL has not been able to take and hold large cities. Mosul is expected to fall before the end of 2016.
Maps depicting just population controlled by ISIL show this control extending along rivers and main roads in the midst of large, thinly populated, areas that are either controlled by no one or held by people unfriendly to ISIL. Most people in ISIL occupied towns and cities are hostile to their rulers and want to flee but ISIL has made that increasingly difficult because the urban areas they controlled were becoming depopulated.
With the recent loss of Ramadi and Fallujah in western Iraq ISIL is now desperately trying to retain control over some of the roads crossing the border. Without control of those roads ISIL cannot quickly move anything between Iraq and Syria. Mosul is basically cut off from the outside world and Raqqa, the largest city in eastern Syria and the ISIL “capital” is also being surrounded. Losing control of so many roads means it is easier to concentrate a very large force against ISIL defenders in a town or military base and quickly defeat the defenders no matter how fanatic they are.
Mosul Gets Organized
As ISIL tries to organize an effective defense of Mosul it is encountering more active and better organized armed resistance by the population. While only a few of the half million or so people still in Mosul are actually using weapons (usually guns or explosives) a much larger number are helping, often by not admitting, even under pressure or torture, that they have seen anything. What worries ISIL leaders the most is the growing network of informers, who pass on to Kurdish, American or Iraqi government spymasters’ information on the location and movement of ISIL leaders and other key personnel (technical experts and the like). These key people are dying from smart bomb or guided missile attack with increasing frequency. Worse, there informers are assumed to be passing on details of new ISIL defenses inside the city. This is causing a growing number of ISIL personnel at all levels to lost confidence in their cause. The people they have “liberated” soon come to hate ISIL and few major Islamic clerics or scholars support what ISIL is trying to do (conquer the world for Islam). It did not go unnoticed by anyone that many of the ISIL defenders in Ramadi and Fallujah were not willing to fight to the death, or even fight at all. This despite ISIL commanders ready to shoot on the spot any subordinate who faltered. The upcoming offensive to liberate Mosul is taking weakening ISIL morale into account and low level combat commanders have been told what to look for (a true morale collapse and not just a feint) and take advantage of it to quickly advance. This information is often delivered by NCOs and junior officers who experienced this sort of thing in Ramadi and Fallujah, so their advice has more impact on men who are going to risk death to act on this in combat. Also encouraging are first-hand accounts from refugees about Mosul residents who would independently go after some ISIL man who was particularly hated and kill him with whatever was available, which was sometimes a knife. club or an axe. Other civilians use one of the many weapons that became available after Saddam was overthrown in 2003 (like a pistol or hand grenade) and kill an isolated ISIL man. The battle for Mosul will not be just a military conflict but also a test of wills and morale.
Turkey Switches Sides
The civil war in Syria and the growth of ISIL has led Turkey to repair relations with Israel, something which antagonizes ISIL a great deal. To make that even more annoying Egypt and the Gulf Arabs have also improved their relations with Israel as a result of the Islamic terror threat. Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf Arabs all had developed links with Islamic terror groups over the years but by 2015 realized that Israel was a better ally and certainly less dangerous than Islamic radicals.
Even before Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador in 2011 relations between the two countries had been going downhill since 2007, when the AKP (Islamic Justice and Development Party) won reelection and party leader (and Turkish president) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to turn on Israel in order to increase influence in Arab countries. It soon became clear that this was not working out so well but the AKP leaders were not willing to back down. By 2011 Turkey had cut most of its extensive diplomatic, economic and military ties with Israel. It took four more years of Islamic terrorist violence inside Turley and isolation from Israeli economic and military cooperation, to change enough minds in the AKP (which is still Islamic).
After the Arab Spring uprisings in Syria turned violent in 2011 Turkey tolerated Islamic terrorists travelling to Syria via Turkish territory as long as this was to fight the Syrian government (Assad) forces. The Turks and the Assads had never got along well and since AKP came to power Turkey has been trying to support efforts by Moslems to “defend Islam” against heretics (like the Shia Iranians, Syrians and Lebanese), Israel and the West. But this backfired and now Turkey is trying to mend relations with Israel, Russia, Egypt and the West. At the same time, Turkey still considers the Assads a greater threat than ISIL or Kurdish separatists.
Kurds Come South
In Iraq the Kurdish forces of the autonomous Kurdish north have proved to be the most effective Iraqi troops available. Some are even operating in Anbar, where Iraq has used many of its elite units to deal with the most stubborn ISIL resistance. Most Iraqi troops see the Kurds as formidable soldiers, almost equal the Americans. But the Kurds are not bulletproof and from mid-2013 through May 2016 Kurdish forces lost 1,466 men (and a few armed women) killed while fighting ISIL. That comes to about 600 per 100,000 a year (a standard measure of such things). That compares favorably to the experience of foreign troops (mainly American) in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. From 2004-7, the deaths among foreign troops ran at 500-600 per 100,000 per year. After al Qaeda was crushed in 2007, the U.S. death rate in Iraq dropped to less than 200 dead per 100,000 troops per year and to nothing by the time American combat troops left at the end of 2011. Contrast that with the death rate for U.S. troops during Vietnam, Korea and World War II, which was over 1,500. Better body armor, tactics, training, weapons and medical care have all contributed to this sharp reduction in fatal combat losses.
The Kurds got the same results by eagerly adopting American weapons, equipment and tactics. Most Kurdish fighter have been trained by American and British advisors since the early 1990s and absorb the Western combat methods better than any other Moslem nation in the Middle East. The Kurds were also able to arm and equip their most heavily engaged combat units to U.S. standards and that played a role in keeping losses down, as did the availability of American air support and continued training assistance. Kurdish military and political leaders encouraged the use of the Western policy of keeping wartime losses as low as possible. This was a necessity for the Kurds who, like the Israelis, are surrounded by much larger, and often heavily armed, hostile populations.
In contrast the death rate of Iraqi security forces since mid-2014 have been about 2,000 per 100,000 per year. It was worst (about 3,000 per 100,000) in 2014 but was less than half that in 2015 and is lower still in 2016. It is unclear exactly how many troops, police and pro-government militia are actually available as the usual (for thousands of years) practice in this region is for commanders to inflate the number of armed men they command and pocket the money they receive for the missing “phantom” troops. One reason so many Iraqi officers and government officials wanted all American troops out of the country as soon as possible was because those foreign troops would often go and count the number of troops actually present and then report the real number. That number was almost always less (often a lot less) than the official number. When U.S. forces left in 2011 the Iraqi security forces (mostly army and paramilitary police) had about 300,000 armed personnel organized in over fifty brigades. While the Kurds comprise only about 17 percent of the Iraq population by early 2015, after the ISIL offensive had done most of its damage to Iraqi security forces there were only about 400,000 armed personnel Iraq could depend on and over a third of those were troops belonging to the autonomous Kurds in the north. Since 2006 the unified Kurdish military has remained at about 100,000 with a larger but with a larger and better equipped reserve. In effect there are about 300,000 armed and trained (some minimally) Kurds in the north. Most are part-timers only activated a few months a year. But because of fear that the Kurds will become too powerful militarily the Shia Arab controlled Iraqi government has quietly and unofficially blocked delivery many arms bought for use by the Kurds. The U.S. has always urged upgrading the military equipment of the Kurdish forces but has also supported the Iraqi government. That means it is up to that government to distribute weapons it buys and since Mosul fell in mid-2014 the Kurds have been getting louder about their weapons shortages. While the U.S. still refuses to ship weapons directly to the Kurds some other NATO countries have done so. But most of the weapons the Kurds need are still being held by the Iraqi government.
July 9, 2016: Some 25 kilometers south of Mosul Iraqi troops began, just after dawn, an attack on Qayyarah Air Base. ISIL defenders put up only a token defense and by midday were fleeing and leaving Iraqi forces in control. The next day American logistics and support experts entered the base and began determining what repairs would have to be made to get Qayyarah ready to serve as the main support facility for the 25,000 or so Iraqi troops, police and militia who would carry out the assault on Mosul from the south (another 10,000 Kurds are advancing from the north). While many facilities at Qayyarah have been destroyed and most equipment removed or inoperable the air strip, long enough to handle heavy transports, is intact as are many of the buildings on the base. Shortly after Qayyarah was retaken the U.S. announced it would send an additional 560 troops to help get Qayyarah back in shape and operating as a support center. These new American personnel are mainly logistics, maintenance and engineering experts. With this reinforcement the number of American troops in Iraq reaches about 6,000, plus thousands of contractors. Fewer than 20 percent could be classified as combat personnel (mostly special operations operators, pilots, ground controllers) the rest are their train, advise and assist the Iraqis in areas where they need the most help (like keeping the troops supplied and major equipment operational). .
July 7, 2016: North of Baghdad three ISIL suicide bombers tried to get into a Shia shrine but were stopped at the main gate. Two of the bombers managed to set off their explosives and ultimately about 40 people were killed. Locals organized a large demonstration against the government for not protecting them.
In the east, just across the border in Iran a new (since 2015) Iranian Arab separatist group (Hawks of Ahwaz) took credit for a recent fire in a local petrochemical plant. The group took credit for two other similar fires that have occurred since 2015. Iran is acutely aware of how unruly its own Arab minority (a few percent of the population) can be. There are a growing number of terrorist incidents inside Iran traced to Iranian Arabs. Most Iranian oil is pumped from the ancestral lands of these Arabs, who are bitter about how they receive little for all that oil. The three million Arabs in Khuzestan province (formerly Arabistan) are Shia and have been ruled by non-Arab Iranians for centuries. Arab unrest here has grown since 2003, when the Sunni dictatorship was overthrown in Iraq and the Shia majority won elections to take power. Iranian Arabs noted that the Iraqi Shia were now getting most of the oil income, unlike just across the border in Khuzestan. Since 2003 hundreds of Iranian Arabs have been arrested for separatist activities. Many are still in prison and nearly 30 have been executed.
July 5, 2016: In the northeast, just across the border in Iran IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) troops again clashed with PJAK Kurdish separatists and claim to have killed two of them. Iran claims that a large PJAK force came from Iraq in early June and IRGC forces are trying to hunt them down ever since. Iran claims to have killed 30 or more PJAK fighters in the last month and admitted to at least six IRGC dead. It is unclear if this PJAK force retreated back into Iraq after the clash. Kurds are about ten percent of the Iranian population and most live in the northwest near the Iraq border. The PJAK separatists have been active for a long time and have links to similar groups in Turkey (PKK) and Iraq. Most of the 2,000 armed PJAK members are in northern Iraq, where local Kurdish government tolerates their presence. There has been more clashes between PJAK and the IRGC since Saddam Hussein was taken down in 2003.
July 3, 2016: In Baghdad an ISIL suicide car bomb went off outside a shopping mall. The bomb killed fewer than fifty people but the fires the explosion started in and around the mall led to more than 200 additional deaths. These were the fault of corruption and bad mall management. The mall was not built with fire safety in mind and all emergency exists were blocked in order to keep thieves out. This disaster has encouraged more people to join the anti-corruption movement which is becoming more powerful because of tragedies like this.
July 1, 2016: Iraqi deaths from terrorist (mainly ISIL inspired) violence declined 23 percent (to 662) in June. That comes after an increase of 17 percent in May (to 867). Civilians accounted for about half the June and May deaths, down from 55 percent in April and the 60 percent that had long been the norm. This shift comes from increased attacks by the security forces on ISIL, better security to deal with ISIL terror attacks on civilian or military targets and, finally, the diminishing strength if ISIL after nearly a year of defeats. Electronic chatter confirms what ISIL deserters and prisoners report about low morale and fewer recruits. At least a third of the May deaths are believed to be the result of the offensive against ISIL forces in Fallujah that began on May 22nd and ended on June 26th.
The death toll for all of 2015 was about 13,400, compared to 15,600 in 2014. That’s still a big jump from 2013 when the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians killed by Sunni Islamic terrorists. The total 2016 deaths are expected to be at least 20 percent lower than 2015. While 2015 was 14 percent less deadly than 2014 both years were much less than the worst year. That was 2007 when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship. Still Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria where the 2015 death toll was 55,000, which was down 38 percent from the 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 69,000 dead (down 24 percent from 91,000in 2014) for the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll has declined in both Iraq and Syria because ISIL has become less effective and in Syria there is a lot more war weariness. Most of the rebels and government forces in Syria are just playing defense and even ISIL has been less active in attacking compared to 2014.
June 30, 2016: Over the last week air strikes by the U.S. led coalition found and attacked hundreds of ISIL vehicles fleeing Fallujah. These vehicles were full of ISIL personnel, weapons and valuables and were headed for Syria. Over a hundred vehicles have been destroyed and nearly 300 ISIL personnel killed. Hundreds of survivors had to walk and some probably had no intention belonging to ISIL any longer.
June 26, 2016: In Anbar province there is still a lot of activity around the recently (over the last few days) captured city of Fallujah. Troops and police are busy screening over 20,000 Fallujah residents who now want to go east, to Baghdad (70 kilometers to the east) or other parts of Iraq, until Fallujah can be cleared of all the mines and bombs and major repairs (to electricity, water and sewer systems). Information from Fallujah residents indicated who was working for ISIL in the city and hundreds of those civilians are under rest and several thousand more are being investigated. It is believed that over 1,300 ISIL men died during the several weeks of fighting and over a thousand were captured. About 15 percent of the ISIL defenders were foreigners.
June 25, 2016: In Mosul two senior ISIL commanders were killed by an American air strike.
June 24, 2016: In the northeast, just across the border in Iran IRGC troops fought PJAK Kurdish separatists. Iran claims five PJAK fighters died while Kurds say they killed several IRGC men.