Sword and Shield
I've put together some resources for readers who want to follow the campaign along the Euphrates River leading to the Syrian border. To begin with, many of the town names (such as Sa'dah) are obscure and not clearly marked on normal atlases or maps. And newspapers have a maddening habit of saying 'a town near the border' without giving the reader any spatial concept of the operations as they relate to one another. Fortunately, there's a site called www.fallingrain.com which supplies weather and coordinates for pretty much every town you can think of. Using this site you can find the locations of the following towns commonly mentioned as part of the border battle.
In decimal degrees
To make it easy for the reader, I've plotted the towns along a Keyhole map, as shown below. These towns are spaced about 4 km apart and located within the populated river valley leading to the Syrian border.
A sense of the terrain can be obtained from old Soviet topographic maps, available from the University of California collection. I've cropped out a section of the topographic maps corresponding to the Keyhole map above. Each of the grid squares is approximately 4 km on a side. Although the area is flat (there are sometimes only one or two 20 meter contour lines in 4 km) there's a noticeable cliff to the north of Qusabayah and a smaller bluff to the immediate south of Sa'dah. By and large, however, the areas to the north and south of the river valley are bereft of cover.
With that topographic background, one can read Anna Badhkens account in the San Francisco Chronicle with a little more understanding.
After swiftly moving house-to-house the previous day through the deserted town of Sada, one of four towns on the border with Syria controlled by foreign fighters linked to al Qaeda, the Marines barely made it 100 yards into the next nearest city of Karabila at sunrise on Sunday when snipers opened fire and insurgents launched mortars and rockets at their positions.
Although there have been very few public descriptions of US dispositions and detailed accounts of enemy movements, it is reasonable to guess from the topography that American forces operate parallel to the river valley in the flat areas to the north and south, while the insurgents maneuver along the populated belt where they can shelter in the houses. Badhkens goes on to say "by nightfall, the sweep had moved less than a mile west of Karabila's eastern edge". This is a description of how the relatively small number of American forces (in comparison to the huge operational area) have the ability to hop from one part of the river valley to the other, probably by going outside then in. They are able, for example, to move very rapidly from Sa'dah to Karabilah 4 kilometers away and only have to slow down when they must actually clear houses, in this case attacking in the westerly direction. As for the insurgents, Badhkens hints at how they maneuver -- moving away from American pressure westward, like a cut rubber band curling away from the flame.
... the fighters ... had threatened to blow up his house if he refused to let them use the field. He said they stayed for several minutes and pushed west, on foot. ... A woman next door said the fighters came through her house, as well, asking for a place to hide from U.S. helicopter gunships. The woman, Leila Zida, said she refused to let the fighters stay, and they continued their journey ... At the house next door, taxi driver Saleh Fayad said he saw the four men walk west, in the direction of the town water treatment plant, and saw four others follow them in a black Chevrolet Caprice.
According the Marine press releases, the operations in Sa'dah and environs are "part of an overall operation called Sayaid (Hunter), which is intended to deny Al Qaeda in Iraq the ability to operate freely in the Euphrates River Valley". Therefore we would expect to observe US forces cutting the Euphrates river line in other places and pushing the insurgents along the valley in the manner of a man slicing a sausage. And that is actually what seems to be happening. Hard on the heels of Iron Fist comes Operation River Gate. (hat tip: Bill Roggio)
Marines launch Operation Bawwabatu Annaher (River Gate) Oct 4, 2005
CAMP BLUE DIAMOND, AR RAMADI, Iraq -- The 2nd Marine Division today launched Operation Bawwabatu Annaher (River Gate) in the cities of Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwana. Approximately 2,500 Marines, Soldiers and Sailors from Regimental Combat Team – 2 and Iraqi Security Force soldiers are participating in the operation, making it the largest operation in the Al Anbar province this year. The operation’s goal is to deny Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) the ability to operate in the three Euphrates River Valley cities and to free the local citizens from the insurgents’ campaign of murder and intimidation of innocent women, children and men.
The objectives of the River Gate are the cities of Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwana, whose location is plotted on the map below. As can be readily seen from the map, this operation is conceptually pushing the insurgents east from Haditha. It is no coincidence that the new American logistics base of Rawah is located in the middle of these two offensives, supporting the push in two opposite directions, essentially cutting the Euphrates river line like a sausage.
Interestingly, the code name "River Gate" calls to mind Squeeze Play, the last Belmont Club post, which observed the existence of the "inner border" between the Type I desert and Type II riverine terrain and how it would be desirable to establish Iraqi government control up to the "inner border" while mobile American forces broke up the insurgency's lines of communications in the Type I desert. It may only be coincidental that the operation in the Type II Haditha area is called "River Gate", while the operations in Qaim, Sa'dah and Qusabayah in the Type I terrain are a component of a larger operational concept called Sayaid (Hunter).
A reader sends this image from NASA's World Wind program which shows the Syrian border looking north. Although the letters are too small to show in this picture (to keep the bandwidth down), the foreground is the river valley centered on Qusabayah. The exaggerated terrain feature in the far distance is the Jabal Sinjar at whose right foot lies the city of Mosul.