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IS, Kobane and the gains on the Euphrates river front

The Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is showing himself to be a skilful battlefield strategist making gains in Iraq as the allied bombing campaign shifts to the defence of Kobane

Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State (IS) is showing himself to be a shrewd and effective military strategist. Over the past several weeks, the world's media has largely focussed on the battle for Kobane, the Kurdish Syrian town that sits on the border with Turkey.

Pundits have argued over just how significant Kobane is with some saying the fall of the town will give IS control of most of the Syrian border with Turkey. Others have said that while the loss of Kobane would be a setback, in the bigger picture the town is not of much strategic importance.

What is indisputable is that Kobane has caught the attention of the world. The image of Turkish tanks parked in safety on their side of the border watching as valiant Kurdish Peshmerga fighters took the full brunt of all out jihadist attacks troubles our collective conscience, as it should.

And predictably, the world's media, with easy access to powerful battlefield images, has played the struggle for Kobane up big.

That suits Baghdadi well because the media attention has caused an already stretched allied bombing campaign to be pulled away from the crucial fight for the cities and towns that lie along the Euphrates river in Iraq's Anbar Province.

The Euphrates is 2500 kilometres long. It begins in Turkey, runs through the heart of Syria (Raqqa, the Islamic State's putative capital is on the Euphrates) and hence into Iraq before joining up with the Tigris River and emptying into the Gulf.

With the majority of allied sorties being deployed to the Kobane front to the west of the Euphrates in Syria, Baghdadi's jihadists in Iraq have been quick to take advantage of the bombing lull.

A look at a map confirms that all along the Euphrates river in Iraq, IS is winning, from the northeastern border town of al-Qa'im which was taken in June, to the now besieged community of Amiriyat al-Falluja (Amiri) only thirty kilometres west of Baghdad.

Baghdad International Airport is located on the western side of the capital, a little more than ten kilometres from Amiri. Just last week US Apache helicopters had to be brought into action to beat back IS fighters menacing the airport.

On 14 October, IS took the river town of Hit, downstream from al-Qa'im and roughly 150 kilometres from Baghdad. IS quickly overran an army base there and captured heavy artillery as well as small arms and ammunition.

The Iraqi army fled north on the highway that runs beside the Euphrates to the city of Haditha. There it joined the beleaguered garrison at al-Asad airbase which is now said to be surrounded by the jihadists.

Down river, around the same time, the provincial capital Ramadi, already severely threatened was reported to have lost its northern and eastern flanks. And further along the Euphrates, the iconic city of Falluja had long since fallen to IS.

And while all of these cities and towns are important, al-Asad - it means "the lion" in Arabic - is perhaps the prize best worth capturing. Until 2010, it was a US base. As part of President Obama's commitment to get American troops home, al-Asad was turned over to the Iraqis. It is the second largest military facility in the country.

It would, of course, be an enormous IS propaganda coup to seize a trophy that is  still so closely associated with the United States, Baghdadi's greatest foe, the country that he both hates and from whom he has the most to fear.

And militarily and strategically it gives the Islamic State a huge advantage in the coming battle for Baghdad.

For if it is the case, as has been reported by the BBC and others, that IS is training pilots on captured Syrian fighter jets, then the al-Asad base,  literally minutes away by jet from Baghdad, assumes even more significance.

So, while the battle for Kobane continues, away from the glare of international media, the consolidation of the Euphrates front by Baghdadi's jihadists is happening with shocking ease. That's because the alliance cobbled together by the Americans is overstretched, hesitant and utterly lacking in any kind of coherent strategy.

The tactic of using a limited air war to buy time to turn a shambolic Iraqi army into an effective fighting unit has proven to be ill-conceived and almost wilfully delusional. No doubt the self-proclaimed caliph has taken great satisfaction ripping huge holes in it.
And as the Peshmerga strive to drive the jihadists from Kobane, Baghdadi is happy to sacrifice his soldiers, including foreign fighters, to keep the battle going, to force the allies to commit much of their airstrike capacity to a single frontline while IS consolidates its hold all along the Euphrates and pushes ever closer to Baghdad.

Will Baghdad fall? Highly unlikely for the time being, given the presence of powerful and well-armed Shia militias in the capital.

But IS can tighten the noose, and harass and terrorise with suicide bombers and assaults on prominent targets such as the international airport.

It can also threaten food supplies - something like 40% of Iraq's grain growing regions are now in the hands of IS.

It can provoke what Al Baghdadi really wants: a ground war with western troops that will force those Sunni tribes who do not already support him to cross over to his side and fight "the invading crusader armies".
Seen in that light, Baghdadi's assault on Kobane looks to be a clever feint by a brilliant and ruthless military strategist who, thus far, has all too easily defied every effort to defeat him.

- Bill Law is a Sony award-winning journalist. He joined the BBC in 1995 and since 2002 has reported extensively from the Middle East. He has travelled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia many times. In 2003 he was one of the first journalists to cover the beginnings of the insurgency that engulfed Iraq. His documentary The Gulf: Armed & Dangerous which aired in late 2010 anticipated the revolutions that became the Arab Spring. He then covered the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Before leaving the BBC in April 2014, Mr Law was the corporation’s Gulf analyst. He now works as a freelance journalist focusing on the Gulf.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A purported image of an IS militant displaying the content of a crate carrying grenades near Kobane (AFP PHOTO/HO/AAMAQ NEWS)

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