Iraqi security forces fire artillery, Fallujah, 29 May 2016. Anmar Khalil/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.The assault on Fallujah has begun. United States-trained Iraqi army units supported by Shi’a militias and Iranian military personnel are attempting to dislodge Islamic State operatives who are deeply embedded in the Iraqi city, west of Baghdad. Some initial reports of success by the attacking forces were quickly modified. These are a salutary reminder of what happened in the similar assault on Ramadi in August 2015. Then, early optimism that the city would fall in a couple of weeks turned out to be hugely overblown. The siege ended up lasting for more than four months, and by the end of it much of the city lay in ruins.
There are many gaps in the current reporting. There are no accounts of the intensity of the US air operations, nor of their direct support of operations by Shi’a militias – something that they avoided when Tikrit fell in April 2015. The caution is most likely because the Pentagon is only too well aware that the Saudis are getting agitated over the extent of Iranian involvement across their northern border, and especially the collaboration between Washington and Tehran.
All the attention being focused on Fallujah carries the danger of missing another significant element in the western media’s coverage of the war. This is the extent of the direct involvement of US troops on the ground, not least as casualties begin to mount.
A complex of allies
The use of special forces is being reported occasionally in the established media. Almost always, however, this happens when the authorities in Washington or London can feed positive stories to friendly journalists, mostly in government-supporting newspapers. Two other factors are less visible: the manner in which conventional forces are now forward-based in combat-zones, and the direct combat roles being taken on by special forces (see "ISIS in action: Tel Askuf decoded", 6 May 2016).
On the first issue, president Obama stated on 26 May that three recent American casualties were service personnel who had died in combat: respectively a Navy SEAL, a Delta Force soldier and a marine. The very term "death in combat" had been used before but not by the president, so this was new. Then, on the weekend of 28-29 May, two more US soldiers were seriously wounded, one in Iraq and one (a special-forces soldier) in Syria. When the Pentagon announced the second injury, it made a departure by admitting that US ground troops are involved directly in combat operations in Syria.
An earlier column in this series reported on the establishment by the marines of forward-based artillery positions to support Iraqi army contingents as the latter tried to move on ISIS forces defending Mosul to the north. One American death happened there when ISIS attacked an artillery position (see "America vs ISIS, the prospect", 15 April 2016).
On the second issue, another column summarised what was known about US special-force operations in the region (see "The west's shadow war", 31 March 2016). Since then, further information has come to light indicating that such elite units are closely integrated with Kurdish allies, to the extent of wearing their insignia. Turkey strongly opposes association with the Kurdish force concerned, the People’s Protection Force (YPG) militia. In Ankara's view the YPG is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is in armed combat with the Turkish state.
Pentagon sources had been quick to confirm that integration with Kurdish allies is not uncommon when special forces were mobilised. The Turkish stance may explain why Washington has now moved to ban the wearing of their insignia. Whatever the political embarrassment, however, the ever closer relationship between US forces and Kurdish groups is bound to continue.
A wider war
All these developments underline a process charted by several columns in this series: that “mission creep” towards western ground troops fighting in Iraq and Syria is now well underway and looks set to accelerate. Since it is unlikely that ISIS can be countered without such assistance, the process may now be inexorable. Even though there has been much derision of the idea that US ground troops can return, this is indeed happening. The war is steadily escalating and is becoming ever more a western endeavour.
This will delight ISIS propagandists. The 'far enemy' represented by the United States and its coalition partners occupied Afghanistan in 2001 and then Iraq in 2003, and followed in 2011 by ensuring the termination of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. There has also been direct or indirect western military involvement in many other countries in these years, including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Ivory Coast.
All in all the 'crusaders' are very much back in business and can be seen as the greatest danger to the world of Islam. That world, ISIS can now claim, is in dire need of protection – and ISIS is the only movement that can provide this. For all the movement's problems, failings and brutality, the message is potent. This alone will ensure that the conflict with ISIS has many years to run.