Syrian Kurdish commanders are working to contain an Islamic State onslaught of suicide bombers and commando-style raids – the favored twin tactic of the jihadist group both when losing ground and ahead of counter-offensives in Syria and Iraq.
Islamic State time and again has exploited its fighters’ mobility, including switching from one side of the Syrian-Iraq border to the other, launching attacks where they are least expected, and using suicide bombers and lightening raids behind enemy lines to keep their opponents off balance.
That was demonstrated a year ago when the resilient group launched an unanticipated counterpunch, stunning the governments in Washington, Baghdad and Damascus by retaking the Iraqi town of Ramadi in the face of much superior numbers while, at the same time 95 kilometers away, seizing Syria’s Palmyra, the desert town containing one of the world’s most important Roman heritage sites, from government forces.
Such dramatic displays of battlefield capability are probably beyond IS now, say analysts.
‘Eyes in the sky’
The group’s ability to move large numbers of forces has been sharply reduced because of U.S. and Russian “eyes-in-the sky.” Large convoys risk being consumed in airstrikes.
And IS is facing upgraded forces especially when it comes to the Syrian government – most of the pro-government fighting is carried out not by the Syrian army but by Iranian revolutionary guardsmen, fighters from Lebanon’s radical Shi’ite movement Hezbollah and revamped Tehran-trained Syrian militiamen, rebel commanders say.
But the better organized and more confident forces challenging IS remain vulnerable to the kind of hit-and-run attacks that took the U.S. army years to contain in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Aerial surveillance doesn’t preclude the movement of lighter and smaller IS units, which are harder to detect, acknowledged U.S. military officials speaking on the condition they not be named.
Kurdish commanders in the Syrian Democratic Forces, the YPG-dominated anti-IS alliance, want to limit the offensive they announced this week and to stop short of the city of the self-declared IS capital Raqqa, partly out of fear of exposing their forces to IS hit-and-run tactics, the officials said.
“The YPG is very cautious in its military actions in northern Raqqa, especially after the multiple security and military breaches carried out recently by IS,” said Hamoud Almousa, an activist with the anti-IS network Raqqa is Being Slaughter Silently.
Kurds face vulnerability
This week’s seven near-simultaneous bombings IS carried out in the Syrian government’s heartland Latakia, illustrated the dangers faced by the Kurds.
More than 180 people were killed in five suicide attacks and two car bombs targeting civilians; one IS bomber blew up himself – and others – in a hospital emergency room.
Such attacks serve several purposes: boosting morale among IS fighters by giving them a sense the group remains undefeated despite losses; providing a psychological warfare edge by eroding the confidence of their foes; forcing IS’s enemies to divert forces for self-defense rather than offense; and inflaming sectarian hatreds.
Seven Sunni Muslims – all internally displaced to the northwest – were killed in retaliation for the bombings by angry local Alawi, members of the Shi’ite offshoot to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs, activists reported.
Anti-IS activist Almousa said, “The YPG has erected dozens of checkpoints” to try to hold back the bombers.
“ISIS strategy does not rely too much on defense; they focus on counterattack and sudden breakthrough,” he said. “This strategy makes the YPG worry a lot more about their front lines and has made them reconsider any military action in any area that has no Kurdish majority population.”
Not that all will be counterattack. While the group’s chief defensive tactics is to counterpunch, it has also in recent weeks increased the number of its fighters in villages around the city of Raqqa, dug trenches, sown minefields and planted booby-trap bombs in villages it expects to lose – all of which will slow any offensive forces.
“Daesh is still very much a dangerous adversary,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington this week. Daesh is an Arab acronym for IS.
Toner said until there is a resolution to the Syria conflict, “it’s going to remain a very murky and difficult environment, and an environment where Daesh will, frankly, find refuge and be able to find footholds and be more difficult to dislodge.”