Is ISIS in retreat?

ISIS’s progress toward a complete takeover of Iraq, and after it Syria, appeared almost inevitable.

January 6, 2016 21:48

YAZIDI REFUGEES played a role in the liberation of their town from ISIS. In 2014 ISIS and its local collaborators had slaughtered many Yazidis and sold thousands of women and children into slavery. Now Yazidi fighters, some of whom had been fighting alongside Kurds against Saddam Hussein’s regime,. (photo credit: VAGER SAADULLAH)

‘The dawn of 2016,” wrote veteran Middle East observer Con Coughlin on December 30, 2015, “finds Islamic State very much on the defensive in both Iraq and Syria.”

A good rule of thumb is not to count your chickens before they hatch, but Coughlin produces evidence to justify his assessment.

Does it stand up to scrutiny? In May 2015, when ISIS fighters overwhelmed a far stronger and better equipped Iraqi army to capture Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s western province of Anbar, the jihadi organization seemed unstoppable.

ISIS’s progress toward a complete takeover of Iraq, and after it Syria, appeared almost inevitable. After all, Ramadi was only about 100 km.from Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, and it seemed but a matter of time before Baghdad, too, would be in ISIS hands. But at the end of December, after days of fierce fighting, Iraqi security forces had regained control of central Ramadi. By the last day of 2015, a mop-up operation seemed all that was needed to recapture the city. ISIS resistance was stubborn, however, and pockets of fighters continued to hold out, frustrating coalition attempts to restore Ramadi to normality.

The defeat back in May of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) defending Ramadi, and its capture by ISIS, seems to have acted as a wake-up call to the US-led coalition. Indeed after the Ramadi loss US Defense Secretary Ash Carter is on the record as saying, rather hurtfully, that the Iraqi army had “no will to fight.” Clearly an essential preliminary to future successful operations against ISIS was to revitalize and re-energize the ISF.

This realization gave birth to what has been dubbed the coalition’s “Iraq First” policy. American and British military advisers concentrated on rebuilding the strength of the ISF to the point where it could provide the capable ground component, to be backed by coalition air cover, recognized by all as essential to reclaiming control of the country from Islamist extremists.

The success at Ramadi seemed to demonstrate its effectiveness.

The government has designated the mostly Sunni city of Mosul, Iraq’s second city some 400 km.

north of Baghdad, as the next target for Iraq’s armed forces. But with a population of around 1.5 million, Mosul presents a far more challenging target than Ramadi. Coalition commanders fear that the battle to recapture the city will involve intense street-to-street fighting. In any case, field commanders wonder whether it is worth attempting that operation before Falluja, lying between Ramadi and Baghdad, has been wrested from ISIS’s hands.

Falluja presents problems of its own. It is a religious and spiritual center of Sunni Islam in Iraq, and the discrimination against Sunni Muslims exercised by former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki has left a bitter anti-government taste in some mouths. During the Maliki years some sort of deal was struck between Sunni militants in the city and ISIS, and in assaulting Falluja coalition forces might find themselves fighting not only IS, but local militants.

So the way forward is far from clear. In fact, the recapture of Ramadi may have raised expectations unrealistically. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, speaking shortly after Ramadi had largely fallen into coalition hands, promised that by the end of 2016 all of Iraq would have been brought under the control of the country’s democratically elected government.

A tall order, but doing just that – even if it cannot be achieved within a twelvemonth – is deemed essential if the US-led coalition is to stand any chance of defeating IS on the ground in neighboring Syria, where the situation is immensely more complex.

A good start has been made.

On Christmas Day 2015, as one stage in the coalition’s march on IS-held areas in northern Syria, the US-backed coalition of rebels, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), captured the key Tishrin dam on the Euphrates River from ISIS. The Tishrin supplies much of northern Syria with electricity. The SDF’s plan of campaign is to cut supply lines between IS strongholds in the north, in particular those between ISIS’s main city of Raqqa and its stronghold of Manbij.

The US military estimates that in the last six weeks of 2015 the SDF, bolstered by coalition air strikes, captured around 1,000 square kilometers of terrain from ISIS. In addition, coalition air strikes on the ISIS leadership had notched up a number of successes. One notable achievement was the strike that killed Charaffe al-Mouadan, a Syria-based ISIS member directly linked to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, believed to be the mastermind behind the coordinated bombings and shootings in Paris on November 13 which killed 130 people.

Mouadan is one of 10 or more leading ISIS figures killed by targeted air strikes toward the end of 2015, among them so-called “Jihadi John,” the figure with the British accent who featured in the horrific “snuff” videos released by ISIS of the beheading of a succession of Western hostages.

On January 4, 2016, ISIS released a video on social media featuring a new masked gunman with a British accent. He directed the shooting at point-blank range of five men accused of spying for the UK, each shown “confessing” before being killed. The Daily Telegraph revealed that an internal ISIS opposition movement – a group called “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS) – had been undermining ISIS operations and providing information that led to the targeting and death of ISIS leaders by airstrikes, including Jihadi John. RBSS is an alliance of journalists and activists from Raqqa, the Syrian town that is ISIS’s de facto capital, and their mere existence demonstrates the internal dissensions that develop when an organization is under pressure or failing.

So obviously the ratcheting up of the coalition’s military action, its continuous pounding of ISIS positions from the air, its successes on the battlefield, the targeted assassination of ISIS’s leadership, the cutting of ISIS’s vital oil flows and its consequent loss of revenue – all are having an effect on the morale and the appeal of ISIS. But, as US Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman for the US-led coalition against the ISIS, observed about ISIS: “It still has fangs.”

Perhaps the most apt assessment of the state of play at the start of 2016 are the words of Winston Churchill, uttered back in 1942, following the British success at El Alamein: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.

But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”

The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is The Search for Détente: Israel and Palestine 2012-2014. He blogs at:

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