US sees drawn-out fight vs Islamic State amid claim of Assad-IS collaboration

A US-led coalition is struggling to hold back Islamic State on the battlefield in both Iraq and Syria. Now, the key Syrian city of Aleppo may be at stake. 

Kamil Zihnioglu/AP
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (l.), French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (c.), and US Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken address the media after a meeting in Paris, France, to discuss strategy in fighting the jihadist militant group, who have made key battlefield advances in recent weeks in Iraq and Syria, Tuesday, June 2, 2015.

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A US-led coalition united against the Islamic State met in Paris this week against the backdrop of militant victories in Iraq and Syria that underscore the coalition's struggles to get ahead on a constantly shifting battlefront.

The coalition of mostly Middle Eastern and European nations has carried out airstrikes, supported ground operations, and shared intelligence in an bid to halt the self-described Islamic State. IS continues to gain ground in Iraq and Syria, however, most recently with the fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province, and Palmyra, a World Heritage site strategically placed in Syria.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called for more international help. “There is a lot of talk of support for Iraq. There is very little on the ground,” Mr. Abadi said at the meeting, saying the terrorist group’s victories were a “failure on the part of the world.”

He said that his forces had made headway but needed more intelligence and weapons. "The air campaign is useful for us, but it's not enough,” Abadi said, noting that IS moves in small, difficult-to-detect groups.

There was a “sense of higher stakes” at the Paris gathering, reports The Washington Post.

Despite airstrikes that initially appeared to drive the Islamic State back, the militants have made rapid gains in Iraq and Syria in recent weeks.

But the meeting — planned before the latest Islamic State victories — did not result in any significant change to the wider international strategy against the militants. 

Antony Blinken, US deputy secretary of State, announced Wednesday that the military campaign against ISIS has resulted in more than 10,000 militant deaths since the coalition's air offensive began nine months ago, Reuters reports. He acknowledged, however, that it was going to be a drawn-out battle: “we have conceived of a three-year plan,” Mr. Blinken said.

Adding to coalition's challenge are reports that Syrian opposition leaders have accused President Bashar al-Assad of collaborating with the Islamic State. The New York Times reports that these anti-Assad rebels say the Syrian government has left “the militants unmolested as they pressed a surprise offensive against other insurgent groups — even though the government and the Islamic State are nominal enemies — and instead [strike] the rival insurgents.”

What is clear is that Mr. Assad and the Islamic State reap benefits by eliminating or weakening other insurgent groups. Mr. Assad can claim he is the only alternative to the Islamic State, and the Islamic State can claim it carries the banner of oppressed Syrians and Iraqis….

Beginning last week, government airstrikes intensified in towns northeast of Aleppo, killing scores of civilians and rebel fighters. Shortly afterward, the Islamic State escalated a longstanding attempt to seize the area and sever the main supply route to Turkey, a lifeline for rival insurgents and the citizens living in their territory.

“The whole thing started with a combination of aerial and then long-range artillery fire from the regime on the rebels,” said [Abu Abdo Salabman, a spokesman for the Sham Revolutionary Brigades, a rebel group], who uses a nom de guerre for his safety. “Then ISIL started their advancements. There is clear advanced coordination this time, and not just a side trying to take advantage of the other.”

The New York Times notes that Aleppo is a particularly high-stakes target for IS:

Western officials have sought to play down the significance of the militant group’s recent gains, including Palmyra, the strategically placed World Heritage site in Syria, and Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province. But the fall of Aleppo would be a critical blow to the American-led coalition that is trying to roll back the Islamic State with a combination of Iraqi and rebel ground forces backed by a bombing campaign.

The US has said it is looking into the claims of collaboration between Assad and IS. The US State Department echoed the allegations on a Twitter feed earlier this year. Meanwhile, the opposition in Syria is also calling for more international support as they battle both IS insurgents and the Syrian government. 

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