'Two and a Half Front War' is well under way

Iraqi security forces ride in vehicles travelling to Mosul to fight against Islamic State at an Iraqi army base in Camp Taji in Baghdad Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Iraqi forces are preparing to fight IS in Mosul

The war in Syria has not gone away, but the efforts to bring about a cessation of hostilities have succeeded in bringing about a partial lull in the fighting.

Russian bombing continues, and the US-led air campaign against so-called Islamic State (IS) also marches on.

While much of the world's attention has been on Syria there have been significant developments in Iraq; some key pointers to important new capabilities being deployed; and more indications that preparations are under way to extend the anti-IS campaign to Libya.

For all the drama, hyperbole and tension of the nominating process in the US presidential race, what is happening now in Syria, Iraq and Libya is of crucial significance. Events there are shaping the world with which the next occupant of the White House will have to contend.

In Iraq, the IS-held city of Mosul is the next great prize.

Eight to 12 Iraqi brigades are being prepared for the offensive. Nobody imagines this will be either fast or easy.

But as the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford noted only a few days ago, "operations against Mosul have already started….we're isolating Mosul."

He was referring to a variety of local offensives - both in Syria and Iraq - to sever vital communications links between the IS strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul.

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A key part of this is the US and allied air campaign. But in the past ten days Syrian opposition forces have reclaimed Shaddadi, in the north-east, described by the Americans as "a critical node for IS training and logistics, as well as for its oil enterprise."

In a separate operation Iraqi forces have launched an offensive against IS supply lines around the city of Samarra, some 95km (60 miles) north of Baghdad.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ash Carter and General Joseph Dunford have briefed on their plans in Iraq

Much of the debate now surrounds the extent of likely US help with the Mosul offensive.

The Iraqi government is highly sensitive on this subject and US official statements are guarded. But it is clear that a significant US effort will be needed.

One idea is for US advisers to be deployed much closer to the action. But the most significant US role - apart from air power - may be to ensure that the Iraqi forces that are engaged have adequate logistics and supplies to enable them to sustain themselves at a high tempo of activity.

Of course there are other things the US could do. And briefings over the past few days have offered pointers to significant new capabilities that are being brought into play.

Cyber attacks

US Defence Secretary Ash Carter hinted strongly at the stepped-up role of cyber attacks against IS, especially in Syria.

This, he said, was being used "to interrupt, disrupt IS's command and control, to cause them to lose confidence in their networks, to overload their network so that they can't function."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Iraqi forces launched an offensive around the city of Samarra

General Dunford stressed the parallels between the physical and the cyber battlefield.

"We're trying to both physically and virtually isolate IS, limit their ability to conduct command and control, limit their ability to communicate with each other, and limit their ability to conduct operations locally and tactically."

Up to now Washington has largely taken the fight to IS from the air. But there are indications that special operations on the ground are also being stepped up.

Just a few days ago it was announced that US Special Forces had seized a key IS operative in Iraq.

This seems to be the first significant operation by a 200-strong team of Delta Force commandos who arrived in the country in recent weeks.

The US Defence Secretary set out an expansive role for this small force.

"It's a tool that we introduced as part of the accelerated operations to conduct raids of various kinds, seizing places and people, freeing hostages and prisoners of ISIL, and making it such that ISIL has to fear that anywhere, anytime, it may be struck."

Libya concerns

There have also been sporadic US air strikes against IS targets in Libya - most recently one launched in mid-February by US warplanes from a base in the UK, that struck an IS training camp outside Sabratha, some 50 miles west of Tripoli. But in Libya too there have been hints of much more going on beneath the surface.

Libya, given its lawlessness and its proximity to Europe, is fast becoming a major security concern for the US, the EU and Nato.

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IS-linked groups are becoming well-established and entrenched. Several countries have indicated their willingness to help with security problems in the country - not least Italy, which might lead any operation.

Image copyright AP
Image caption US bombing of a suspected IS training camp in Libya killed at least 38 people

Up to now the essential condition for any western-backed mission (in which the US too would probably play a key supporting role) is to have agreement, by the various Libyan factions, on a national unity government.

Such a deal has proved elusive, but some military operations are already under way. In late-February the French newspaper Le Monde revealed what it said was a "secret war" in Libya being waged by French special forces.

The reports prompted considerable anger from the French government and a variety of linked stories suggesting that US and British operatives might also be on the ground.

Back in January the Italian authorities agreed to allow the Americans to operate armed drones from the Sigonella air base in Sicily with officials at the time indicating that these missions would be to protect US forces on the ground that might be under threat.

Whatever may be happening on the ground in Libya - and governments rarely acknowledge operations by special forces - other steps are being taken to bolster regional security.

Britain, for example, has despatched a small military training team to Tunisia to help its forces secure its border with Libya.

The Tunisian government is also engaged in talks with the German authorities about the possible training of Libyan security forces in Tunisia.

Stability elusive

So what might be termed "the two and a half front war" is well under way. Given time the US seems confident of a positive military outcome.

But you'll notice I don't use the word "victory". That would imply countries like Syria, Libya and Iraq returning to stability with inclusive governance and much-reduced corruption; in other words the removal of some of the very forces that helped to fuel the Islamist surge.

Looking more broadly at the region it is hard to see many positive developments that would indicate a return to stability.

If anything, the relatively settled borders of the post-colonial era are now being called into question like never before.

It doesn't seem that long ago that President Obama seemed to have relegated the Middle East as a US interest, giving priority to a pivot towards Asia.

But the Middle East isn't going away.

In many ways its problems are on the move. And it is going to dominate US foreign policy during the early years of Mr Obama's successor - and probably beyond.

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