As the Iraqi army supported by Iranian- backed militia forces advances toward the center of the Iraqi city of Tikrit, there are growing indications that Islamic State is in decline.
The Iraqi army and its allies, supported by US-led coalition air forces, have captured strategic villages and neighborhoods around and inside the Sunni-dominated Tikrit.
Amid heavy fighting, during which both sides have lost hundreds of fighters, Gen.
Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate hearing that “there is no doubt” Iraqi forces will drive Islamic State guerrillas out of Tikrit, and the strategic city will be recaptured.
Tikrit, which is located north of Baghdad, was taking by Islamic State during its 2014 spring offensive, when it surprisingly took over large parts of Iraq – proving that despite a decade of US military presence and trillions in financial support, the country was a house of cards.
The most important gain by Islamic State in the June 2014 offensive was the capture of Mosul – one of Iraq’s biggest cities, with nearly 2 million inhabitants.
When Tikrit returns to the hands of the Iraqi government, it will be a significant strategic and morale-boosting victory.
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It will prove that the Iraqi army, again trained by the US military, is capable of regaining some of its prestige and capabilities, and should pave the way to the next and most important battle – to take back Mosul.
According to top American and Iraqi military and government officials, the battle for Mosul will take place in May – once US advisers have completed training of the Iraqi army. It is expected that US special forces and intelligence backup will be present on the ground, but will not take an active part in the battle.
One of the major strategic ramifications of the Islamic State phenomenon is that behind the scenes, it has created an unholy alliance between two rivals: Washington and Tehran. The two share interests, at least in the short run: to defeat the Sunni barbarians of Islamic State in Iraq.
The Iranian “project manager” is the powerful Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. The Quds Force is in charge of Iran’s foreign clandestine special operations and serves as the secret link with Shi’ite militias and communities abroad, such as in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. The Quds Force is also deeply involved in supporting terrorist groups – such as Islamic Jihad, and in the past, Hamas – which serve the interests of the Islamic Republic.
Soleimani is also a key player in Iranian efforts and provider of material support to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad on his shaky throne in Damascus.
Without admitting it, there is – either directly, or indirectly via Iraq – a secret coordination between Washington and Tehran. The two parties (and indirectly Israel) are involved in helping the Kurds in Iraq, who are also taking part in the war against Islamic State. For example, Kurdish peshmerga forces set ambushes that killed hundreds of Islamic State reinforcements from Syria trying to reach Tikrit.
Making the new strategic reality even more convoluted, it is important to stress that the US-Iran tacit understanding is limited only to Iraq.
In Syria, the two sides are have different aims. While Iran, with its Hezbollah proxy, is determined to keep Assad and his Alawite allies in power, the Obama administration’s ultimate goal is to remove Assad. Yet the two parties also fight Islamic State in Syria; Iran and Hezbollah fight the campaign together with Assad’s army, while the US is leading the aerial bombings.
The aerial attacks that are killing Islamic State fighters and damaging its infrastructure (military bases, vehicles, weapons depots and oil production – the major source of revenue for the group) proved especially essential in the battle for Kobani.
Kobani, located near the border between Turkey and Syria, is a Syrian Kurdish town that was under Islamic State attack and siege for nearly five months. A few weeks ago, a coalition of local fighters and Iraqi Kurdish reinforcements, with aerial strikes by the US-led coalition, drove out Islamic State – which lost 2,000 to 3,000 of its fighters.
Kobani was a symbol of the strong determination and refusal to surrender to Islamic State. The recapture of the entire city served as a morale booster, and a symbol in the war against Islamic State; it was the first major battle in which the group was stopped since last year’s advances in Iraq and Syria.
“Kobani last January and now Tikrit can be the beginning of the end for Islamic State,” I was told by a senior Western intelligence source who asked for anonymity.
“And when Mosul is also retaken, Islamic State will be dwarfed to its more or less original size – a terrorist group.”
In retrospect, many Israeli, American and Western experts admit that because of the surprise emergence of Islamic State last spring, its real capabilities and the threat it poses were exaggerated. Contributing to the movement’s over-inflated, omnipotent image was its “digital marketing campaign” – the cruel and barbaric but well-produced, and thus frightening but effective, ritual of beheadings.
Yet these well-staged ceremonies, taking advantage of and manipulating international media and Western public opinion, also proved counterproductive.
When Islamic State started beheading Western hostages, the West woke up, realized the danger and decided to respond and retaliate.
The mobilization of the international community against Islamic State might have been slow and insufficient – but it is already bearing fruit. While Islamic State still controls a large part of Syria (though mostly desert) where it established its “caliphate,” nevertheless it seems to be in decline.
Its appeal to young Westerners of Muslim origin is weakening; Western security services are monitoring and preventing the movement’s recruiting campaigns.
News emerging from Islamic State-controlled areas shows in-house battles taking place between various factions of the group; more and more disenchanted fighters are trying to escape and desert.
The group, once so terrifying, seems to be a passing fashion. But make no mistake: Islamic State will continue to cause trouble and inflict damage as a terrorist organization, and the battle against it will continue.
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