Islamic State suffers losses in provincial home of the ‘caliphate’

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Over the past two days, Kurdish forces and other rebel factions have seized a town and a military base from the Islamic State in its home province of Raqqa. As they have advanced on the seat of the so-called “caliphate,” the anti-Islamic State forces have been backed by US airstrikes.

In a statement released on its web site, the YPG (or People’s Defense Units) announced that the town of Ain Issa has been “liberated” from the Islamic State. Ain Issa is just 50 kilometers, or roughly 30 miles, north of Raqqa.

The YPG says the “fresh assault operation” began on June 22, and involved the “combined forces of the People’s/Women’s Defense Units (YPG/YPJ),” as well as “fighters from the Burkan al-Firat (Euphrates Volcano – FSA).”

The “FSA” is the Free Syrian Army. The YPJ (or Women’s Protection Units) is the YPG’s female brigade. The YPG/YPJ is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US government.

This same alliance of forces drove the Islamic State out of Kobane earlier this year.

In a separate statement, the YPG says it has begun “final mop-up operations,” including “[m]ine-clearing and search operations…in and around Ain Issa.”

The advance on Ain Issa and its surrounding areas was launched just weeks after the Islamic State lost control of the town of Tal Abyad, which resides on Syria’s border with Turkey. Kurdish and other rebel forces have worked their way south from the border town towards Ain Issa in the days since.

In addition to Ain Issa, the anti-Islamic State coalition captured the Liwa 93 military base, which is nearby.

Shervan Derwish, who is the official spokesman for the FSA’s Burkan al-Firat (or “Euphrates Volcano”), has posted several images from inside the base on his own official Twitter feed and Facebook page. One such photo can be seen at the top of this article.

The Raqqah Revolutionaries Brigade (RRB), which fights against both the Islamic State and the Syrian regime, has posted updates on the fighting since the beginning of the week. In the past, the RRB had been associated with the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, but the two sides failed to formalize their partnership.

On June 22, the RRB announced on its official Twitter feed that the Liwa 93 base had “been liberated completely from DA’ISH’s [the Islamic State’s] mercenaries” and that its fighters were “advancing” on Ain Issa.

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Follow up tweets by the RRB’s propaganda arm purport to show an Islamic State fighter who was killed on the “outskirts” of Ain Issa, as well as arms and land mines captured from Baghdadi’s organization. The RRB says the weapons and explosives were stored in civilian residences. The YPG has posted similar photos on its official Facebook page. The images show dozens of landmines that were reportedly recovered.

A photo of some of the recovered weapons can be seen on the right.

Still another tweet contains a map trumpeting the fighters’ close proximity to the city of Raqqa. And in a previous post on June 18, the RRB posted a picture of an empty white cage, saying it was among the “remnants” of the Islamic State’s presence in the areas of the northern part of the Raqqa province it has lost.

The Kurds and allied FSA fighters are now moving to consolidate their control over northern Raqqa province. According to Reuters, a spokesman for the YPG says that an attack on the city of Raqqa itself is not immediately planned. For now, it appears that the Islamic State’s opposition intends to continue seizing vital infrastructure, including checkpoints along a key highway, in a bid to squeeze Baghdadi’s men.

It remains to be seen, however, if the Kurdish-led forces will continue advancing south, or if the Islamic State will be able to counter the offensive with a new push north.

Either way, the “caliphate” does not control the entire province of Raqqa. Given that the Islamic State’s claim to rule is based, in large part, on the idea that it is “remaining and expanding,” its recent territorial losses are clearly problematic.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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10 Comments

  • Oberron says:

    Tel Abyad was liberated last week, not weeks ago. I think you mean since Mabroukah fell?

    Any event, IS has lost Tel Abyad before. In fact last year it was fighting in the streets of Raqqah. IS considers itself a borderless state, it isn’t necessarily concerned about ground in so far as how effects their operations.

    Wouldn’t surprise me if like Sarrin IS has decided to let YPG approach the Euphrates River where the Dams are no bomb zones for Coalition Aircraft and use their artillery advantage in the lush Euphrates Basin which would serve to hide them and let YPG use their signature Human Wave Assaults into pre-registered Kill Zones and suck them into urban combat then unleash a counter-attack later while the bulk is tied up in Raqqah.

    So far, we are seeing 3,000 FSA Fighters and 2,500 YPG/J fighters with massive USAF support fighting a few hundred IS Fighters on Narrow Fronts achieving massive force concentration.

    The main fighting forces of IS appear to be in the Azaz Front, Central Corridor, and Anbar with supporting forces in Hasakah, Baiji, and Kirkuk.

    IS probably is partially wagering that Turkish Political Instability will lead to Erdogan cutting a deal with MHP to go after YPG and locking HDP out. HDP isn’t helping its case by refusing to cut a deal with Erdogan to form a Coalition. The other possibility is that no government forms, and Turkey goes for Snap elections and AKP claws back votes and HDP loses their seats having turned off their voters for hard-lining, in turn leading to street riots and leading again to Erdogan cutting MHP a deal to crack down on PKK/YPG.

    The other wager IS is likely counting on is that their attempt to crack the Central Corridor or Azaz Front succeed and they can flip substantial Rebel Units to their side. Failing that, Anbar Front succeeds in clearing out ISF and gains them more gear and increased tribal support.

    Or IS is already planning a counter-strike and just waiting for the right time to trigger it.

    IS is about to implode is also another possibility.

    Just have to wait and see.

    • wiggum says:

      Or in other words…

      If IS is forced to retreat -> they did not want to defend this area anyway only had 100 of their fighters there against 6000+ YPG/FSA assaulting in “Human Waves” with massive USAF support.

      If IS takes a area -> they are military genius, they massed their force at the right time and place.

      Where did you get that information about the “signature Human Wave Assaults” ?
      How would you call the tactics of the IS in Kobane, sending thousands of their fighter into the meat-grinder acting as dummy targets for US B-1 Lancer bombers ?

      Anyway, its pretty self-evident that “a few hundred” dug-in fanatic (suicidal) IS fighters with hundreds of IED’s and dozens of SVBIED’s require a much larger offensive force (ever heard of 3:1 ?).
      That does not show how tactical badass the IS fighters are, it just shows that they have enough young men ready to die while fighting a delaying action.
      Now please tell me how the IS always attacks with inferior numbers and material…i know they all do it with their genius military tactics…

      Arent you the one who said that the YPG is far more brutal then the IS ?
      Arent you the one who said that the YPG is as much of a terrorist organization as the IS ?
      Sorry, i cant take you seriously.
      Your constant meditation on what genius master-plan the IS has or is currently executing and how bad everyone else in this conflict is is just to much over the top.

  • m3fd2002 says:

    Not sure if these territorial gains are sustainable. The Turk’s are not happy with the YPF/PKK expansion. Their lines of supply are now relatively extended, and very vulnerable to IS tactics. I could be wrong, but I expect a significant IS offensive somewhere in the Euphrates River Valley soon.

  • mike merlo says:

    US Forward Observers, most likely employed(‘sheep dipped’) as ‘Contractors,’ have been actively working along side the various Kurdish Factions

  • Devendra Sood says:

    History tells you that it is a forgone conclusion ISIS or ISIL or Daesh, what ever the name, will be destroyed or self-destruct. It is only a question of how much damage and butchery they will inflict upon the populace before they are killed off.

  • Pendraig says:

    How little effort was made by IS to defend these Northern towns? The fact that they were let go so easily suggests that a plan is in place. Any ideas on what that could be?

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    They got beat by girls!

    • jay says:

      You do know that firearms nullify the decisive impact of physical prowess don’t you. And that the weak,elderly and children can kill just as easily as a young and strong male with a gun.

  • Alex says:

    Doesn’t that put Raqaa within firing range for the M270? Just saying.

    What are the odds on the Kurds getting heavier weaponry (armor, light helicopters), not necessarily from the US but from someone–EU, China, Russia, smaller states with an arms industry like Serbia, South Africa, Ukraine, Croatia, etc.?

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