As losses continue to mount for Islamic State fighters along multiple fronts in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group is facing the most serious threat to its Middle East strongholds since the beginning of the U.S.-led coalition campaign.
In Iraq on Wednesday, government special forces and Shiite militias breached the city limits of Fallujah, which the Islamic State has been holding for two years.
Meanwhile, separate campaigns by Syrian government troops and U.S.-backed rebel forces are reclaiming territory from the extremist group across the border, and Libyan government troops say they are pushing back Islamic State forces who have set up a major satellite stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte.
U.S. officials say the multiple offensives are straining the Islamic State’s resources and putting stress on its leadership to hold the forces together.
“We definitely see increased pressure in Iraq [and] Syria, and the goal is to increase that pressure, then make the enemy fight in multiple directions at once,” Col. Chris Garver, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said Wednesday during a briefing from Baghdad.
The turn of the battle is also cutting into the supply of fresh troops for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. The number of foreigners heading to the Middle East to fight for the terrorist group has dwindled significantly to an estimated 19,000 to 25,000 total in Iraq and Syria, Col. Garver said.
Islamic State commanders have begun conscripting civilians from its territories in Iraq and Syria to replenish fighters captured or killed in multiple battles across the region, he said.
“They are impressing young men, even children, into their ranks to become fighters. So they’re trying to regenerate their forces from inside the so-called caliphate,” Col. Garver said.
After flushing out Islamic State fighters from the cities of Ramadi, Hit and Rutba in Iraq’s volatile Anbar province, Iraqi forces — backed by U.S. air power and heavy artillery — are pressing the attack in Fallujah, the terrorist group’s last major outpost in Anbar.
Iraqi special forces reportedly began pushing into southern portions of Fallujah on Monday alongside Arab Sunni and Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen.
Initial front-line reports indicate that the fight in Fallujah will be akin to the drawn-out battles triggered by the Islamic State’s aggressive defense of Ramadi and Kobani in Syria. But Iraqi commanders and their U.S. advisers are waiting to see whether Islamic State fighters will try to hold Fallujah.
“We are still trying to assess the overall intent of [the Islamic State] in the city, whether they intend to try to hold to the last man or if they will abandon their defenses as [Iraqi Security Forces] fight deeper into the city,” Col. Garver said.
As the fight for Fallujah unfolds, local forces also are inching forward to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the Islamic State’s capital in the country.
Over the past several days, Kurdish peshmerga forces have cleared eight villages controlled by the Islamic State east of Mosul, pressing the Kurdish line to within 24 miles of the city. U.S. aircraft destroyed a main Islamic State hub used to transport black-market oil 5 miles west of Mosul, Col. Garver said.
In northern Syria, Arab and Kurdish militias and U.S. special operations teams are close to severing a key Islamic State supply line.
The Arab-majority Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, are within days of capturing northern Syria’s Manbij district. The area, 100 miles southeast of the Turkish border city of Gaziantep, is a well-known waypoint for Islamic State fighters, weapons and equipment bound for the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa.
As in Iraq, U.S. aircraft have pummeled targets in Manbij, launching over 80 individual airstrikes in the area since SDF and U.S. forces began their assault on the district, according to the Pentagon.
Aside from Manbij’s strategic importance as a lifeline into Raqqa, Islamic State operatives in the northern Syrian district were planning attacks against Europe, Turkey and the United States, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said last week.
“We know that there is external plotting conducted from Manbij City, not just Raqqa” Mr. Carter told reporters en route to security talks with Asian allies in Singapore.
Cutting off Manbij from Raqqa will also bolster “shaping operations” in and around the Islamic State’s so-called capital by U.S.-supported Syrian units, said Col. Garver.
Roughly 300 U.S. special operations troops are on the ground in Syria advising SDF and Kurdish militias in their long-awaited assault on Raqqa.
“Our plan is to destroy [the Islamic State], reduce their effectiveness as a military force. They’re inside Raqqa, and so eventually, we’re going to get there,” Col. Garver said.
Libya heating up
The story is much the same in Libya.
Despite political difficulties forming an effective central government, Libya has forces fighting under the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord.
The forces have fought to within 3 miles of the center of Sirte, the site of grisly executions of local residents by the Islamic State, Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Ghasri told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The drive began Friday when militias from the western city of Misrata, backed by heavy air support, pushed into Islamic State territory and clashed with extremists on the streets of Sirte.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook denied any U.S. involvement in the Sirte offensive.
“There has been no training, advising or assisting mission” by U.S. forces in Libya, he told reporters Monday.
A small number of U.S. special operations teams have been spotted on the ground in northeastern and western Libya for the better part of a year, conducting patrols and advising local militias in the fight against the Islamic State.
Last month, the Obama administration and its European allies began shipping weapons and other equipment to Libya to battle the jihadi threat, despite U.N. sanctions still technically imposed on Tripoli.
Gen. David Rodriguez, the U.S. Africa Command chief, has met repeatedly with Libyan officials in Tripoli to discuss where U.S. forces could provide more direct support to Libyan militias.
But Libyan authorities are concerned that the Pentagon’s efforts to arm, train and equip forces may be moving too fast, given the pitfalls of the last U.S.-led effort.
“We have to be cautious. We cannot rush back into this,” Wafa Bugaighis, charge d’affaires at the Embassy of Libya, said during a panel discussion in Washington.
Military analysts say the Islamic State is far from beaten and has proved a tough opponent in the field.
In addition, the Iraq and Syrian offensives are marred by deep sectarian and political divisions among the various forces nominally on the same side in the fight against the Islamic State. Activists warn of a potential humanitarian crisis for residents trapped in cities such as Fallujah, Mosul and Raqqa.
U.S. military officials also warn that the Islamic State may respond to its reverses on the battlefield by stepping up suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.
The regional threat posed by the Islamic State “remains high and continues to diversify,” U.N. Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.
Battlefield losses could motivate foreign fighters to flood back into Iraq and Syria in an attempt to reinforce Islamic State territory in the face of the coalition’s onslaught, Mr. Feltman said.
Islamic State battlefield losses around Mosul and in Anbar province have U.S. advisers on edge, anticipating another round of suicide attacks in Baghdad.
“As Iraq enters the holy month of Ramadan, we expect [the Islamic State] to attempt more high-profile, headline-grabbing attacks to sow terror and to distract from the fact that they keep losing militarily,” Col. Garver said.
The Islamic State could also activate more clandestine cells.
This “new phase” of Islamic State operations could include “elevating the role of its affiliates, moving funds out of conflict areas and increasing the risk of complex, multiwave and international attacks” in the West, particularly in Europe, Mr. Feltman said.