In just the last few days, fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have seized a series of Iraqi cities from Mosul in the north to cities as close as 35 miles from Baghdad. They have also consolidated their gains by taking a series of towns in al-Anbar province - most of these are in the Euphrates Valley.
They have also moved in the opposite direction, to the southwest, taking the city of al-Rutbah (A on the map), which sits at the junction of the main highways from Baghdad to Damascus, Syria and Amman, Jordan. Immediately afterwards, they moved to the borders and seized the border posts. This positions ISIS to basically cut off Iraq from both Syria and Jordan.
Let's take a look at what this means from a military standpoint.
The first border crossing (#1) near Jabal Juraybah was key to the ISIS advance on Mosul. Soon after that, ISIS forces seized the border crossing at Albu Kamal/al-Qa'im (#2), the main route into al-Anbar province. In just the past few days, they have moved from the junction at al-Rutbah to the border crossing on the Syrian border at al-Walid (#3) and the border crossing on the Jordanian border at al-Turaybil (#4).
Controlling these border crossings is a smart move on the part of ISIS. Someone in that organization has attended war college - I suspect this expertise is coming from former senior Iraqi army officers who have joined the ISIS cause.
As a result, ISIS can now:
- prevent overland support from the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to his embattled ally in Damascus, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.
- position forces for a possible attack into Syria that expands ISIS's presence from the north to areas east of Damascus.
- stopped overland traffic - both commercial and a possible evacuation route for foreigners in Iraq - between Iraq and Jordan.
- position forces to mount an incursion into Jordan. ISIS has threatened to move into Jordan and "slaughter" the Hashemite royal family.
There have been reports, seemingly corroborated by American defense officials, that Syrian fighter aircraft have struck targets inside Iraq near these border posts in an attempt to prevent these border crossings from coming under ISIS control. The Syrian military public affairs office acknowledged the reports of the air strikes, indicating the location of the alleged targets, but refused to confirm or deny the veracity of the reports.
ISIS has pretty much a free hand in western Iraq - it appears that the Iraqi military has ceded control of the area to ISIS and is planning on defending Baghdad. What we do not want is the acceptance/acquiescence by the Iraqi government of the presence of ISIS on their soil. The status quo is unacceptable.