Iraqi Forces Advance Towards Tal Afar, ISIS’ Last Urban Stronghold

Just after a month since Mosul was retaken from ISIS’ control, Iraqi forces have pushed forward to the outskirts of the North-Western city of Tal Afar. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced in a televised speech addressing the push that ISIS would ‘either surrender or die.’  ISIS have had control of the city since 2014 and there are an estimated 1,500 ISIS members are believed to be in Tal Afar, along with up to 50,000 civilians.

ISIS members in Tal Afar have been besieged by both Iraqi and Kurdish forces for much of the past year, the group is believed to be comprised of largely foreign fighters, some of whom fled the fight in Mosul and have subsequently taken new positions within Tal Afar. Many of them are battle-hardened and prepared for the fight for the city to try to hold their claim on the Urban stronghold.

Lt. Gen Abdul-Amir-Rasheed Yar Allah, commander of the operation to reclaim the city, has announced that the Iraqi forces have recaptured villages to the East, South-West and North-West of the city. The Iraqi team have been described as a “capable, formidable and increasingly professional force’ by the US-led coalition providing air and other support to the Iraqis. The coalition’s involvement has included dozens of airstrikes, targeting weapons depots and command centres. This has been in an effort to demoralize and tire the remaining ISIS fighters, to reduce the amount of on the ground fighting hopefully to the effect of a shorter battle than the one in Mosul.

Despite these efforts, fears are rife concerning the safety of civilians, both those who remain within it and those who have chosen to flee. Approximately 30,000 civilians have already begun their journey out of Tal Afar.  “Families are trekking for 10 to 20 hours in the extreme heat to reach mustering points. They are arriving exhausted and dehydrated” stated Lisa Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq. Oxfam’s deputy director for Iraq, Haissam Minkara also brought up the issue of where the Tal Afar refugees end up: “Whilst most families are being taken to existing camps, thousands are also sheltering in remote villages or informal settlements in the desert where temperatures reach up to 50C. People urgently need a safe place to sleep, food and clean drinking water.” The fate of those fleeing ISIS is uncertain, and it is frightening how little support there may be after they flee such violence.

Grande also commented on how “conditions are very tough in the city… people lack the basic necessities to survive.” Some of the most vulnerable in the city are the many Yazidi children, believed to be held captive in Tal Afar, with their names and details changed by their captors.  There is also the threat that ISIS’ fighters will use civilians as hostages in an attempt to slow the coming battle. It is unclear how many civilians remain in the areas in which fighting will take place, but any who remain are inevitably at risk of being caught up in the conflict.

Minkara urges that “The government of Iraq must ensure that all troops involved in the offensive uphold the prime minister’s commitment to put civilian protection at the heart of their military operations and allow all civilians to reach safety and assistance without discrimination,” which emphasizes the delicate situation Haider Al-Abadi faces in both combatting the threat and protecting the civilians.