Iraqi and Hashd al-Shaabi forces advance on al-Qaim in western Anbar province in early November. Photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraq announced their latest offensive against ISIS in its remaining holdout in the country’s western deserts on Friday.
Iraqi forces and Hashd al-Shaabi militias “launched a major drive to clear areas of the al-Jazeera region between Nineveh and Anbar,” the Joint Operations Command said in a statement.
While ISIS no longer holds any urban centres in Iraq, Prime Haider al-Abadi has said he will not declare final liberation until the remote desert areas along the Iraq-Syria border are cleared of the militants.
Russia, after announcing the defeat of ISIS across the border in Syria, has offered its assistance to the US-led global anti-ISIS coalition to defeat the militant group in Iraq.
“Russia is ready for dialogue to join US-led coalition to help defeat ISIS in Western Iraq,” Russia’s Ambassador to the UK Alexander Yakovenko tweeted on Thursday, referencing the Russian Ministry of Defence.
Russia has been propping up Damascus in the civil war and providing military support for Syrian regime forces, but has not played a role in the war against ISIS in Iraq.
Kurds in Syria, who had been the key coalition ally fighting ISIS on the ground, have recently begun to strengthen their ties with Russia.
Nuri Mahmud, spokesperson of the Kurdish armed forces YPG, joined Russian military personnel on December 3 to announce the defeat of ISIS in northern Deir ez-Zor province, east of the Euphrates.
In an interview with local ANF media published on Thursday, Mahmud contradicted Russian assertions that ISIS is defeated throughout all of Syria.
“ISIS still hasn’t been completely eliminated in Syria. It wouldn’t be appropriate to assume so, and that line of thought would not serve the process either, because ISIS is still on the field in the military sense,” he said. “There needs to be a great war against that.”
He stressed however, that “the support Russia will offer to the ongoing struggle against ISIS is important for us.”
The closer relations between the Kurdish forces and Russia come as the United States has said it is adjusting its support for the YPG as the focus shifts to stabilization. Mahmud, however, asserted that their ties with the United States remain strong.
“Our partnership in the fight against ISIS continues,” he said. “This relationship will continue until ISIS is eliminated.”
The main question for Syria now is what kind of a country will be built, post-ISIS, Mahmud said.
Kurds have established a semi-autonomous federal system in northern Syria – a governance style they believe will solve the problems that drove Syria into civil war.
Turkey is opposed to the Kurdish endeavours. Ankara believes the Kurdish groups, the YPG and its political wing the PYD, are extensions of the PKK, a named terrorist organization. The YPG and PYD deny the charge.
Turkey launched its Euphrates Shield operation in summer 2016 with the stated aim of clearing its borders of terrorists – battling ISIS in northern Syria and preventing Kurds from expanding their territory.
Ankara is currently threatening military action in the western Kurdish canton of Afrin and Turkish troops are establishing observation posts in Idlib province, ostensibly as part of creating a de-escalation zone as agreed to by Turkey, Iran, and Russia in the Astana process.
Mahmud said that Turkey’s “intention to invade Syria has called the stillbirth” of its relationship with Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Turkey on December 11 to meet Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president’s spokesperson announced. Developments in Syria will be one topic on the agenda.