Before the spring of 2015, ISIS’ advancement seemed to slow down. This was attributed to air strikes by the international anti-ISIS coalition aiming to curb the progress of the militant group. At the same time, the Iraqi Army was starting an offensive to re-capture land. But ISIS does not give any sign of collapse. The militant group has escalated violance in the summer of 2015.
The Iraqi government, with help from the US and popular mobilisation forces (militia forces consisting predominantly of Shiite fighters) became successful in re-taking Tikrit from ISIS in April, 2015. Afterwards, while popular expectation was the further advancement of the Iraqi government and Shiite militia forces, their victory over ISIS paused. ISIS, on the other hand, embarked on a new wave of expansion.
The capture of Ramadi and Palmyra by ISIS
ISIS’ first target was the city of Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar province, just 100 kilometres from the capital Baghdad. The group adapted new tactics in warfare and used the natural cloak of sand storms against the threat of air strikes. This tactic literally blinded hi-tech equipment. Without air support, the events on the ground resembled the fall of Mosul as hundreds of police, soldiers and tribal fighters abandoned Ramadi without extensive clashes. On May 16, 2015, Ramadi fell into ISIS control.
The next day, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi called on the Shiite militias to help the Iraqi Army with counter attacks in Ramadi. This call started a sectarian controversy because Anbar is a Sunni majority province. Meanwhile, criticism regarding the Iraqi army’s loss of willpower to fight ISIS started surfacing and the policy on how to deal with ISIS came under scrutiny.
On the other side of the border, on May 22, 2015, ISIS captured the Syrian-regime-held Palmyra city. The area also houses the antique city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. This was the first time ISIS seized a city directly from the possession of the Syrian army. After this territory capture, Syrian Observation of Human Rights stated that ISIS dominated 50 percent of Syria.
ISIS claimed responsibility for two different Shiite mosque bombings during Friday prayer, in two different countries, Saudi Arabia and Yemen on May 2015. The attacks raised great concern in Saudi Arabia, which began a military operation in Yemen to prevent the Shiite Houthis’ control of the country.
Escalation of ISIS attacks in Middle East and Africa
At the end of May, ISIS launched an offensive in Hasakah, Syria, another regime controlled province. Despite confronting the regime in these two fronts, ISIS forces also began shelling and conducted skirmishes around opposition stronghold in Aleppo city. In a tweet by a US embassy in Syria, it openly accused the Syrian regime of backing ISIS’ advance in Aleppo.
This displays the very complexity of the dynamics in the Syrian Civil War.
ISIS’ attacks in Aleppo significantly slowed down the advances of the opposition forces against the Syrian regime. In the months prior to that, various belligerent opposition factions formed a unity and with coordination, they had made significant advances against Syrian regime forces. An opposition leader said, “Had it not been for ISIS, Syrians will be in Ramadan month in Qardaha.” referring to the hometown of the Syrian President Bashar Assad, which is another regime stronghold near the Mediterranean coast.
The northern Syrian district of Tal Abyad, which has been held by ISIS since early 2014, captured by the forces of Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the militias of the PYD (Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party) on June 15, 2015. YPG militants also seized control of Bridge (Liwa) 93 Airbase in the Raqqa province of Syria after forcing ISIS to retreat deeper into Raqqa on June 22, 2015. But such victories by the YPG did not hinder ISIS’ activities in Northern Syria.
ISIS relaunched an attack on Kobane with two bomb-laden vehicles near the Mursitpinar border gate of Turkey, in the morning of June 25, 2015. More than 100 people were killed and many more wounded. On the same day, ISIS wrestled for control over the western Nashwa district in the north-eastern Hasaka city from Syrian regime forces in overnight fighting.
On June 26, 2015, more than 60 people lost their lives in two attacks carried out by ISIS in two different countries, Tunisia and Kuwait. A car bomb, exploded in a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City, the capital of Kuwait, killing 27 worshipers and wounding 200 more during Friday prayer. On the same day, a gunman opened fire at the beach of a Tunisian hotel, killing 39 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for both attacks.