Iraqi forces “swiftly and thoroughly” ejected ISIS fighters from Al Qaim — a city at the western edge of Iraq’s Anbar province and the terrorist group’s last stronghold on the Iraq-Syria border — in early November.
ISIS has lost most of the land it once held and has largely disappeared as an organized fighting force. All that’s left of the group’s so-called caliphate, which once stretched from northwest Syria to the edges of Baghdad, is chunks of territory along the Euphrates River in Iraq and Syria.
For the close to 1,000 US Marines assisting Iraqi forces in the area, the campaign has led them back to familiar terrain to continue the fight against an enemy that appears set to evolve into a different kind of threat.
“Marines, in particular, understand western Iraq,” Marine Corps. Brig Gen. Robert Sofge told Marine Corps Times this month — an area Sofge called “old stomping grounds” for US Marines.
“We spent most folks’ career there and there are relationships there that endure,” Sofge said. “Even while priorities may shift in and around [US Central Command], that doesn’t make what’s going in Anbar [province] less important.”
ISIS fighters have mostly withdrawn from Iraqi cities, Sofge said, but a Marine Corps task force is still in the area assisting Iraqi forces around Al Qaim with airstrikes and artillery support, as well as with intelligence and surveillance. But the expanse of empty desert in Anbar presents its own challenges in a new phase of the anti-ISIS effort.
Clearing and holding territory recaptured in Anbar will be “much more challenging,” said Marine Corps Col. Seth Folsom, commander Task Force Lion, which oversaw fighting in Al Qaim.
Folsom told the Associated Press that it was easy to motivate troops to fight to regain their country. “What’s less easy to motivate men to do, is to stand duty on checkpoints,” he said.
Added to that challenge is the potential for a shift to irregular warfare.
“We believe that the enemy is in the deserts and also fading into the civilian population,” Sofge told Marine Corps Times. “There’s still a great deal of work to be done, even if it’s not against traditional formations in the cities.”
Sofge said the remnants of ISIS in the area have yet to adopt insurgent tactics that Al Qaeda, the group’s predecessor in Iraq, used against US personnel and Iraqis in the mid- and late-2000s. Marines on the ground there are not advising Iraqi forces on counterinsurgency tactics because such operations are not being conducted.
‘It’s quiet before the storm’
Resources in Anbar are stretched increasingly thin among a growing number of coalition troops stationed in the area.
Marines in Al Qaim ration water, according to the AP, while water-shortage notices adorn bathrooms and showers at Al Asad, the coalition’s main base in the province. Weather conditions and a lack of Iraqi escorts often delay supply convoys dispatched to outposts in Anbar.
Unlike coalition forces in northern Iraq, forces in western Iraq now also face the “tyranny of distance” as a complicating factor for their operations, Folsom told the AP.
A Marine staff sergeant who was in Anbar in 2007 told the AP that while mood among US personnel after ISIS’ ouster was one of accomplishment but not of finality. He said that while he initially didn’t think he’d be back, he now expects US forces to be there for generations.
“When my son joins the Marines, he’ll probably be deployed to Iraq,” he said with a laugh.
Some Iraqis in the area are anxious about things to come.
In Fallujah, a city in eastern Anbar that became a flashpoint for sectarian tensions and insurgent fighting during the US occupation in the 2000s, the mood remains tense, as Sunni-Shiite tension simmer.
While ISIS’ ouster has brought Iraq together in some ways, the success of the campaign has allowed old divisions to resurface in some parts of the country. At an military outpost in Fallujah, Iraqi Col. Muhammad Abdulla said the local population, largely Sunni in a Shiite-majority country, remained wary of the central government, which has been dominated by Shiite officials in the post-Saddam era.
Some in the area were still sympathetic to extremists, while others doubt US or Iraqi forces can protect them, leading most to not cooperate, Abdulla said.
“We say it’s quiet before the storm,” Sheikh Talib Hasnawi Aiffan, head of the Fallujah District Council, told Ben Kesling, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was stationed in Fallujah as a Marine lieutenant in 2007.
“We are scared,” Aiffan told Kesling. “We have experienced it before.”