For the last two years, ISIS has seemed an unstoppable force, crushing everything in its path. First Syria and Iraq, as the militant group attempted to create a homeland of its own. Then in parts of northern Libya. So many innocent civilians have died. So many have been enslaved and tortured.
But despite their recent call to make Ramadan a month of “conquest,” the seams of the so-called caliphate are cracking. The light is slowly getting in. ISIS is losing ground on all three battle fronts.
Iraq: Loosening ISIS’ Grip on Fallujah
Last week, Iraqi government special forces entered Fallujah for the first time since the city was captured by ISIS more than two years ago. Even now, government forces are pushing toward the city center, with the support of U.S. air strikes.
Steady gains have been made since the push to liberate Fallujah commenced on May 23. Forces managed to recapture a dam in the first days of fighting, as well as outlying villages and strategic crossing points.
More recently, Iraqi Special Forces and Shia militias fought house-to-house to recapture the Shuhada neighborhood in the southernmost part of the city center.
Recent intelligence coming from those who escaped the Fallujah suburbs suggest that nearly twice as many civilians are trapped in Fallujah as earlier believed—up to 90,000. The new estimate effectively doubled the burden of providing aid, overnight.
These residents of Fallujah have been starving for months. Those who recently escaped have shared stories of ISIS trying to coerce people into joining, in exchange for food.
There are many long, difficult days ahead, especially for the thousands of Fallujans who are now beginning to flee. But ISIS is encircled, increasingly desperate, and slowly losing ground.
Syria: Surrounded in Manbij
Another recent push into ISIS territory has taken place in northern Syria. The Manbij Military Council and Syrian Democratic Forces surrounded Manbij, an ISIS-controlled town which has been an important distribution point for militants smuggling supplies from Turkey.
In the last few days, 600 Manbij residents have been able to escape. Military forces encircling the city are waiting before they take further action, in hopes that more residents will be able to flee before air strikes begin.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are also reported to have liberated 70 villages and farms from ISIS in the last two weeks. Residents of one village celebrated in the streets after ISIS was driven out; women rejoiced in being able to wear colorful clothing again, for the first time in years.
Libya: ISIS’ Fallback Plan, Now Falling Apart
Libya has been something of a backup plan for ISIS. Last year, they seized the coastal city of Sirte as their Libyan stronghold. It’s been viewed as a fallback capital, in the event things go badly for them in Syria and Iraq. That plan appears to be slowly unraveling.
Despite massive upheaval throughout Libya—including three separate governments functioning in various parts of the country, the UN-backed unity government currently enjoys enough support that it’s been able to see gains in the fight against ISIS.
Many strategic victories were won in the last week, including securing control of all roads leading to Sirte. The military and militias then pushed into the outskirts of the city, recaptured an air base south of the city on Saturday, as well as a Ghaddafi-era military camp on Sunday. This week, they’ve pushed into the city itself.
Anti-ISIS forces also took control of the neighborhood where the Zartaran traffic circle is located—a now infamous spot where ISIS staged public crucifixions as a way to intimidate and maintain control. One of the first things the militias did was pull down the gallows, shouting “God is greater” as the metal structure fell to the ground with a clatter.
The battle continues one street, one neighborhood at a time. But one thing is clear: ISIS is progressively being hemmed in on all sides.
Make no mistake, the situation remains serious. ISIS still controls a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, and millions remain imprisoned by their rule.
Local residents living under ISIS rule are risking death to get out. They are crossing rivers and fields at night, braving ISIS snipers and landmines to escape. Starved out of their homes, they are risking it all for a chance at liberation.
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