Iraqi forces announced a strike against the Islamic State Wednesday in another sign of the group’s growing weakness.
The Iraqi National Intelligence Service said early Wednesday morning local time that Iraqi air force pilots flying F-16s struck caves being used by IS members in the Qaraj mountains, near Tuz Khurmatu in eastern Iraq. The strikes destroyed IS hideouts in the caves and killed an unspecified number of the group’s members, according to a Facebook post from Iraq’s Security Media Cell.
The group posted a video of the operation on Twitter.
Why it matters: The Islamic State lost its final territory in Iraq in 2017 and in Syria in 2019. The group has continued to carry out attacks in both countries since then, but operations by Iraqi forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-led international coalition and various others have weakened it. The US Department of Defense inspector general's report on IS activity in Iraq and Syria for the second quarter of 2023 noted the group’s limitations.
“ISIS capabilities remained degraded in Iraq and Syria,” read the report, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State. “The group conducted fewer attacks, which were mostly small and opportunistic, and suffered from ongoing leadership losses at the hands of the Coalition.”
Several IS leaders have been killed since original ruler Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died in a US raid in Syria in 2019.
The report also noted the Iraqi military's progress fighting IS. Iraq’s air force continues to rely on the US-led coalition for targeting support, but has made progress in developing its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, despite lacking sufficient relevant aircraft.
A July report by Mohammed Hassan for the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace reached a similar conclusion. According to him, both the Syrian and Iraqi states are significantly stronger than they were when IS burst onto the scene in 2014, and this relative strength on the ground has “militated” against IS’ return.
“The Syrian regime and its allies have regained control of many areas in the central and eastern regions of the country that they lost after 2011, and the Iraqi army and security services have been developing their military capacities — in part by cooperating with the dozens of local militias, directly supported by Iran, that operate in the country,” wrote Hassan.
Despite the group being relatively weaker, the Islamic State has made deadly attacks in Syria recently. On Aug. 11, IS killed more than 20 Syrian soldiers in an ambush in the eastern Deir ez-Zor province. It was IS’ third attack in two weeks.
Know more: Iraqi and US defense officials met in Washington earlier this month to discuss further steps to enable the Iraqi military in the fight against IS.