The latest propaganda video released by the extremist group known as the Islamic State looks just a little bit desperate. The children of Islamic State, or IS, fighters from Uzbekistan – who are known as some of the most battle-hardened in the group – talk about how they will remain committed to the extremists’ principles, as they grow up. These sad kinds of messages indicate just how badly off the IS group is right now.
The IS group has lost a lot of ground in Iraq over the past three years. At one stage, the extremists controlled around a third of Iraq, in the provinces of Anbar, Salahaddin and Ninawa. Today the organisation controls only two towns in Iraq: Rawa and Al Qaem, both near the Syrian border.
While all international eyes may have been on Kirkuk this week, where long-standing problems between Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs have been playing out, convoys of military vehicles have been heading to the Ain al-Asad army base, the biggest military camp in Anbar province and the closest one to Al Qaem.
It is true that Iraqi security forces control the major cities in Anbar, but the extremists control the desert surrounding them. Being able to secure that desert area is a daunting task.
The Iraqi air force and planes flying with the international coalition formed to fight the IS group have been dropping leaflets on the town of Al Qaem, asking residents to stay away from areas they know the extremists use as headquarters, as well as intensifying bombing raids on the town. Analysts say this indicates the start of the ground battle is not far off.
Iraq’s Ministry of Defence recently announced that air raids had killed senior members of the IS group there, including Abu Omar al-Iraq, one of the leaders formerly at the front line in Syria, Abu Muhannad al-Halaby, the police chief for the IS group in the area and Abu Saeed al-Masri, a senior accountant for the group.
Despite such small victories against the IS group there is no doubt this will be a difficult fight. For one thing, it will be taking place in a desert area with no nearby cities. It is a test for any military to operate in such a harsh environment.
“This will be the most decisive battle when it comes to eliminating the IS group from Iraq,” Shalal Abid, an MP for Anbar, told NIQASH. “But it will also be an extremely difficult fight because of its location on the [Iraqi-Syrian] border. However it is clear that the security of Anbar, and of Iraq, cannot be guaranteed if this border area stays under the control of the extremists.”
Anbar local, Rafea Abdul-Kareem al-Fahdawi, leads a tribal militia in the town of Khan al-Baghdadi, and he and his men have prevented the IS group from entering their town for two years. At one stage they were under siege from the extremists for three months.
Al-Fahdawi seems excited about the fact that fighting against the IS group will soon begin but he also has reservations about the circumstances in which it must be fought. “There is an army of extremists on the border,” he explains. “Because all of the IS fighters who lost in Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul have now gathered here. There are also a lot of other fighters, ones who left the Syrian city of Raqqa, over the past few days. And there are also the fighters who were transferred here from the Syrian-Lebanese borders after a deal that the IS group did with Hezbollah [the Lebanese militia group].”
The IS group has nowhere left to go from here, al-Fahdawi says, “which means they will fight to the bitter end. It is going to take some time too, due to the environment here. But this desert will be their graveyard,” al-Fahdawi promised.
Al Qaem is considered the last remaining outpost of the IS group. They continue to receive and train new recruits, and also have an explosives-making factory here. Leaders of the extremist group from Syria and Iraq are known to meet in Al Qaem.
Iraqi military intelligence also believes that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is present in Al Qaem at the moment. “Intelligence reports say that there are currently stricter security measures in place in Al Qaem and that curfews are being imposed randomly,” an intelligence officer told NIQASH, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to comment on the matter. “We believe that al-Baghdadi is there now, a few days after the defeat of the IS group in Raqqa.”
The choice of Al Qaem as the IS group’s last stronghold is a clever one for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the town is in the middle of a fairly fertile area with a moderate climate; grain and vegetables can be produced in the area itself and do not need to be imported. The area is surrounded by a vast desert and this is useful for military reasons: there are natural tunnels and crevasses that can serve both as weapons stores and as a means of travel: IS fighters can move through these tunnels and chasms unseen by surveillance drones or aircraft overhead.
Another factor in the IS group’s favour are the two tribes in the Al Qaem area, who are competing for power and influence. The Albu Mahal and the al-Karbouli tribes have been engaged in territorial disputes here for some time and the IS group is able to take advantage of those divisions.
The main problem for pro-Iraqi-government forces is the distance between Al Qaem and the nearest base, Ain al-Asad, which is 150 kilometres away. That is a sizable distance to transport troops and equipment, through the desert. Additionally, there are plenty of opportunities for roadside or surprise attacks on that highway.
The fact that Al Qaem lies on the Iraqi-Syrian border is also an issue. Extremists could ostensibly return to Syria, then move back into Iraq, with relative ease: The border area here is about 600 kilometres long and nigh on impossible to completely patrol.
The border also presents political issues. The Iraqis and the Syrians will have to cooperate. But so too will the US and Iran. This will be especially tricky because Iran has been seeking a land route to connect to their allies in Syria for years, while the US has been trying to prevent this.
“While it is true that Iraqi security forces control the major cities in Anbar, the extremists control the desert surrounding them,” says local tribal leader, Qassim al-Ithawai. “Being able to secure that desert area is key to the coming battles and it is a daunting task.”
When US forces were in Iraq, they had a hard time doing this, even though they had sophisticated technology and equipment and used planes, land patrols and satellites, al-Ithawai adds.
“And the extremists have prepared themselves very well for the upcoming fighting. They have made good use of the desert over the past three years to build their strongholds,” he concludes.