Note: This article is part of a series. Read part one here. In 2014, the Syrian Civil War exploded onto the international scene as Iraqi security forces lost control, the Iraqi government scrambling to consolidate power and defend Baghdad. Kurdish forces assumed further autonomy and began a sub-autonomous regional pushback. Guerrilla groups emerged, mostly affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). All the while, Daesh rose and cut a swath of destruction through the region, making it the most successful year of their terror campaign. Daesh deployed a flood of terror on the region, reminiscent of the barbarian hordes in Roman times. They utilized assassinations, bombings, fear, and zealotry, followed up by an ever-growing allotment of troops and captured military technology abandoned by their foes.
Daesh takes advantage of the Syrian Civil War
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA), Hezbollah, and the al-Abas Brigade focused on quelling rebel forces in the north, made up primarily of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG/YPJ). While these major players exchanged blows, al-Nusra and its Syrian ally, Ahrar al-Sham, initiated pockets of resistance which soon spread into a devastating offensive on what would become Daesh’s capital city, Raqqa. In March of 2013, the Battle of Raqqa began, with FSA rebels storming the city alongside Daesh umbrella groups al-Nusra, Ahrar-al-Sham, and Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman, which were attacking under the flag of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). What followed was an ugly seven-month power struggle that resulted in the rout of the SAA’s 17th Division, loss of Al-Tabqa Airbase, and the withdrawal of the FSA, ensuring the city of Raqqa would fall completely into Salafi-jihadi hands by August, 2013. These actions ensured a future regional strategic seat of power for a rising Daesh just over the Iraqi border.
As the fires raged in Raqqa, Daesh moved into position in the south and west through their now-fully assimilated branch in Syria, al-Nusra. A freshly invigorated Daesh, empowered by their swift expansion in Al Anbar Province, divorce from al-Qaeda, and their collective gains in cash and equipment seized by the absence of routed Iraqi security forces, overtly moved into Syrian territory and in opposition to all forces in Syria.
Through al-Nusra, Daesh seized the town of Azaz in October, 2013, and Atme in November, 2013, from the FSA. In November, 2013, Al-Nusra also captured the al-Omar oil fields in Syria, which effectively cut off the Syria government from their remaining oil production facilities, forcing the Syrian government to import oil and cutting off a major source of their income, which also secured additional invasion income and a route through rebel-controlled territory for its fighters to launch a renewed attack on the divided Syrian city of Aleppo.
Sensing the changing climate of their alliance and the growing threat from Daesh in Iraq, the FSA, along with the Kurdish forces loyal to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD, the Syrian PKK), the Mujahedeen Army of Aleppo (MAA), and the remaining SIF forces loyal to the FSA, launched a January, 2014 offensive on Salafi-jihadi forces throughout Syria, hoping to oust the threat before they could consolidate their wins under Daesh.
Initially successful, the unlikely confederation ousted Salafi-jihadi forces from Aleppo, Raqqa, and those cities’ suburbs. In surprising support of the offensive, Turkish air strikes supported the confederation in Aleppo, ensuring the complete removal of forces loyal to Daesh from the city, as well as the FSA assassination of Samir al-Khlifawi, AKA Haji Bakr, a senior Daesh military commander noted for his tactical successes in Iraq.
Daesh fought back and recaptured all of Raqqa, but their offensive failed in Aleppo. In February, 2014, Daesh took another hit; al-Nusra, which Daesh had raised as its Syrian branch, rebelled in response the Daesh divorce from al-Qaeda. Al-Nusra, now in alliance with the FSA, sprang a surprise attack on Daesh, forcing them completely out of Deir ez-Zor Province in Syria. March brought further losses for Daesh in Syria; these losses were compounded by the movement’s sudden political isolation and the fact that they were now a target of nearly every other faction in Syria. A forced retreat was in effect across Syria as Daesh sought to consolidate its forces in Raqqa. As Daesh ran to Raqqa, the factions across Syria began to once again focus on fighting the Assad government.
Water as a weapon was employed on a massive scale by Daesh in April against the citizens of Iraq; they closed the flood gates of the Nuaimiyah Dam in Fallujah. As a result, floods wreaked havoc from Abu Ghraib to Baghdad, destroying the homes of 12,000 and effectively placing the predominately Shi’ite population of southern Iraq in a state of drought. Babil, Karbala, Nasiriyah, and Najaf were effectively cut off from water and electricity. Targeted water attacks continue to be a hallmark of Daesh’s strategy.
The FSA, realizing the strategic importance of Raqqa, attempted a short-lived attack on the city at the end of May, which ended in a truce as the FSA was drawn away from the city by SAA forces. Daesh in Syria was now well-rested, and with its regional enemies focused on one another, Dash organized an all-out assault across Iraq and Syria in June using the equipment and munitions seized from Iraqi security forces. Syria launched coordinated air strikes in support of an Iraqi counteroffensive while the FSA pushed back against Daesh gains. At first it seemed as though the Daesh offensive would successfully be stopped. Yet air strikes and troops unwilling to fight only go so far; Daesh again routed the 17th Division and ejected Brigade 93, then recaptured Tabqa Airbase, held by the SAA, to consolidate complete sovereignty over Raqqa.
Farther into Iraq
While Daesh was devouring town after town in Syria and Iraq, the onslaught across the region was in full effect. Factions in Syria were now focused on Daesh again, and Turkey was now adding fuel to the fire by allowing Daesh fighters to circumvent the FSA- and YPG/YPJ-controlled northwest of Syria by allowing them safe passage back and forth to Iraq and Syria through Turkey’s mountainous border regions. A new atrocious tactic was also employed in May, when Daesh kidnapped 140 Kurdish children and forced them into reeducation madrassas.
This offensive continued, and by June, Daesh had secured positions on the road from Damascus to Homs in Syria, and encroached on the international boundaries of Lebanon. Then, on the 25th, they launched a renewed attack on the city of Kobani as a diversion while they sacked their primary target of Al-Hasakah, implementing harsh rule and displacing 200,000 civilians.
Mosul and Tikrit, Iraq, fell to Daesh in June. They took control of an international airport, mass media communications infrastructure, and released prisoners from the jails. By the 20th, UNHCR announced that over one million Iraqis had been displaced by Daesh. The 21st brought the downfall of Al-Qaim and multiple other Iraqi-Syrian border towns. Kurdish officials reacted by restricting regional border crossing for refugees.
Assured by their gains and securing their capital, Daesh—through Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, their “Amir al-Mu’minin” or commander of the faithful—declared itself a worldwide caliphate, recognizing Raqqa, Syria as their capital city. Their claim was swiftly rejected by global political and religious leaders. Jordan and Saudi Arabia responded by moving their military forces to the Iraqi borders. Many Iraqi border control outposts had been seized by Daesh or tribes loyal to their cause, while others had been simply abandoned by Iraqi forces. The FSA, unfortunately, reacted with as many as 6,300 of their fighters defecting to Daesh. The U.S. deployed 300 uniformed personnel to Iraq on the 29th to bring the total U.S. presence at the time to 800.
U.S. SOF intervention
The fourth of July marked a U.S. special operations forces rescue mission at Daesh’s Osama bin Laden camp in Syria. Following air strikes on the camp, approximately two dozen troops searched the area for hostages, including American journalist James Foley. Following a three-hour firefight, U.S. forces abandoned the search. It was later concluded that the hostages had been moved a day before the attempted rescue. Shortly after the rescue mission, Syria’s largest gas and oil fields, located in the Homs Province, were captured by Daesh. Daesh forces consolidated the ground in between Deir ez-Zor, Syria and the Iraqi border to connect their logistical routes. In Mosul, Daesh lashed out against history by blowing up Jonah’s tomb, dating back to the 8th century B.C.E. Daesh released their roadmap for expansion.
Operation Inherent Resolve
In August, Daesh was once again focused on Iraq. Their forces again swept aside Iraqi security forces and added the northern Iraqi cities of Sinjar, Wana, and Zumar to their collection as part of a bid to take control of Mosul’s hydroelectric dam. In Sinjar, things were different due to the unique population inhabiting Sinjar—the Yazidi. The Yazidi are culturally and religiously opposed to Daesh and were immediately marked heretical and targeted for genocide.
Read Next: Know Your Enemy: Daesh, the Islamic State (Pt. 1)
Many of the Yazidi escaped from the region while others climbed Mount Sinjar, seeking safety on the high ground. The men who did not escape were summarily executed, the women sold, coerced into forced marriages, or subject to fates unknown. The Shi’ite population fell under Daesh rule and was forced to pay a Jizya, or religious tax, in order to avoid similar fates.
As part of the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve, air strikes were initiated against Daesh on the 23rd of September, 2014. The U.S. informed the FSA of the air strikes and commenced a now-failed rebel armament and training program. In response, Turkey petitioned the United Nations for a no-fly zone to be implemented across Syria. The air strikes and weapons had little effect, and a no-fly zone was not implemented. September also marked the month that Daesh began sanctioning kidnappings for ransom to fund their death machine.
President Barack Obama released a statement on the 7th of August, committing the U.S. to the developing Daesh situation, citing the oppressed Yazidi as a call to limited arms, launching an air strike campaign and providing humanitarian aid. On the 19th, Daesh posted video of the decapitation of American journalist James Foley on YouTube. The 2nd of September brought a similar fate to American journalist Steven Sotloff. Both videos were titled “A Message to America,” and the executions were conducted by a Kuwaiti immigrant to the UK, Mohammed Emwazi, better known as Jihadi John. Emwazi also committed this brutal crime against Japanese citizens Haruna Yukawa and journalist Kenji Goto; Abdul-Rahman Kassig, a U.S. citizen; and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning. Army Colonel Steven Warren stated on the 13th of November, 2015, that he was confident that Emwazi had been killed in a U.S. air strike.
Daesh then began another assault on Kobani, Syria, in early October following their effective September encirclement of the FSA and Kurdish factions in the area. Undeterred by the air coalition or factions, Daesh continued its advance. In Iraq, 10,000 fighters rallied in Mosul for a march on Baghdad. Iraqi security forces freaked out and threatened to abandon their positions if U.S. forces were not deployed to support the defense. Daesh again brushed aside the Iraqis and moved to within 16 miles of Baghdad International Airport. At the end of the month, Daesh emerged in war-torn Libya with 800 loyalists taking control of the city of Derna. The Libyan branch would eventually also capture the cities of Nofolia and Sirte, as well as a Libyan military base.
November began with Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, an Egypt-based terrorist group, pledging allegiance to Daesh, adding to the organization’s international collective. Iraqi officials released information pointing to the execution of 322 members of the Sunni Albu Nimr tribe. Nine were women and six were children. The tribe, an American ally from Operation Iraqi Freedom, had been fighting Daesh successfully, and the attack on the tribe did not deter their will to fight. This is an exception in a region overshadowed by cultural and ideological paradoxes.
In January 2015, the battle of Kobani took place. It soon became an international incident as 400,000 ethnic Kurds were displaced. The Turkish border region was a hotbed for Daesh fighters, but refugees were stuck at the border crossing. The Kurdish government was forced to negotiate for Peshmerga reinforcements to enter Kobani through Turkey. Meanwhile, the YPG/YPJ were smuggled in using illegal PKK routes. The FSA joined the Kurds in the fight as U.S. and Arab air strikes cleared hard targets and resupplied Kurdish fighters on the ground. The city itself was not cleared of Daesh until 27 January, 2015, and the outlying villages were not freed until April.
Daesh first emerged in Europe in January, with reports of Daesh operatives disguised as civilian refugees entering the European Union. A Daesh representative released a statement that 4,000 operatives were active in Europe at that time and had been sent to Europe to plan and execute attacks in retaliation for coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria. This claim was initially dismissed as fear propaganda, but the multiple attacks on the city of Paris alone in 2015 has brought this claim forward for reconsideration.
Later that month, a Yemeni spokesman released a statement to the press that Daesh had become effective recruiters within Yemen and that they were second only to al-Qaeda. In Afghanistan, government officials acknowledged a Daesh military presence in the country. Still, 65 of its members in Afghanistan were wiped out by the Taliban and the lead Daesh recruiter was killed in a U.S. drone strike by February.
Daesh burned alive inside a cage a captured Jordanian fighter pilot on 03 February. By the 5th, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates had conducted a series of air strikes against Daesh in Syria, targeting ammunition-supply points and training facilities in and around Raqqa. Daesh attempted to capitalize on the situation by claiming the American hostage Kayla Jean Mueller was killed by Jordanian air strikes. Kayla Jean Mueller was confirmed dead on the 10th, but the circumstances surrounding her death are disputed. President Obama asked Congress to authorize war powers for the fight against Daesh. The Libyan arm of Daesh executed 21 Egyptian Christians; Egypt responded with air strikes on their positions in Libya.
March brought yet another new allegiance to Daesh, this time by Nigeria’s deadly terror network, Boko Haram. In Iraq, Daesh repelled a counterattack by Iraqi security forces on Tikrit. Daesh forces in Raqqa, Syria, released a video of men being thrown from a building, the punishment for being openly homosexual in their territory. On the 12th, Iraqi security forces achieved a victory by taking Tikrit. Daesh retaliated by blowing up an Iraqi Army headquarters located north of Ramadi.
International intervention in Syria
U.S. special operations forces executed a raid in Syria in May. The raid, the first direct-action mission against Daesh, was successful; it resulted in the killing of Abu Sayyaf, the chief financial officer for Daesh, as well as 11 Daesh fighters. His wife, Umm Sayyaf, who is believed to have played a key role in her husband’s activities, was captured. Several terabytes of data from electronic devices were recovered, along with archaeological finds, proving Daesh’s involvement in the criminal antiquities trade. A Yazidi woman held captive by the terrorist couple was also freed.
The raid was launched from Iraq, with the “full consent of Iraqi authorities.” A little farther south in Syria, after eight days of fighting, Daesh plundered the UNESCO World Heritage site of Palmyra. In August of 2015, in an act of childish defiance, Daesh blew up the 2,000-year-old Temple of Baalshamin—an act they publicized long after they dominated the area. They continued to oppress the local population by way of their standard operating procedures, including mass executions, forced implementation of sharia law, terror, and religious taxation. Meanwhile in Iraq, Daesh captured the city of Ramadi, the largest city in the west of the country.
June brought some good news: U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the press that 10,000 Daesh fighters had been killed by air strikes through Operation Inherent Resolve. U.S. Air Force General Hawk Carlisle explained to reporters that Daesh social media posts were being used to target the militants. The explanation came on the heels of a 22-hour military response to a Daesh selfie, which resulted in the destruction of the poster’s compound in Syria. Later that month, international Daesh affiliates brought terror to Tunisia, killing 38 at a resort hotel and 28 by way of the bombing of a Shi’ite mosque in Kuwait.
Russia militarily intervened in Syria on the side of the Syrian government on 30 September, 2015, fighting against all groups in opposition to the Syrian government. Russia was providing aid and a buffer against a possible U.S. intervention against the Assad regime prior to their direct involvement. Russian involvement has caused growing concern, and the Syrian conflict is now being described as a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia. There has been mention from Russia that a “volunteer” ground force may be deployed to Syria, as Russian jets consistently and accidently fly into Turkish airspace.
On 22 October, 2015, Army Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler became the first American service member to be killed in action while fighting Daesh. Wheeler, a Delta Force team member, died from wounds received during a hostage rescue operation in Kirkuk, Iraq. The joint U.S. and Kurdish mission freed 70 prisoners held by Daesh.
On October 31st, Daesh claimed responsibility for taking down a Russian airliner in Egypt. The one kilogram TNT device was placed on the Metrojet aircraft by an unknown Daesh source. Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised to “find and punish” those responsible.
November 13th brought victory in Iraq and terror abroad. A Kurdish coalition spearheaded by the Peshmerga liberated Sinjar from Daesh and cut off a vital logistical route from Syria to Mosul. That evening, Daesh claimed the attack in Paris, France, which killed 129 and wounded hundreds more.
Daesh is a vicious terrorist group that is resolute in its efforts to force harsh tyrannical Islamist ideology on everyone, kill off infidels including Muslims that do not accept Salafism and apostates, subjugate all non-Muslims, and construct a global caliphate. Daesh is an apocalyptic, merciless crusade that employs fear and terrorism to propagate its message and impose its rule. Fear is the benchmark service of Daesh, and it is used to force its enemies to submit. It drives enemy soldiers to flee the battlefield and shapes everyday activities down to how we travel and identify ourselves a world away. Daesh has created a terrorist playground in Iraq and Syria, which continues to be a breeding ground for psychopaths and evil. This amusement park for the demonic, if allowed to grow unchecked, will ensure that Daesh will continue to be a threat to the U.S. and its allies for years to come.
(Featured image courtesy of theguardian.com)
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