It’s far too early to write an obituary for the Islamic State, but there are signs that the fundamentalist regime might have reached its high water mark. It gained territory in both Iraq and Syria at lighting speed as demoralized local militaries fell back in front of its advance, but through 2015 the resistance seems to have stiffened and the jihadis have been suffering increasingly frequent reverses.
Janes, the respected military analysis firm, says a series of defeats in the second half of 2015 has reduced the territory the group holds by around 14%. That might seem startling to a lot of people; media coverage creates the impression that ISIS is still expanding, and they are still taking control of new areas. Some of the most iconic – and disgusting – images to come out of the whole mess are videos of the extremists using explosives to destroy pre-Islamic ruins at the ancient city of Palmyra. Like most fundamentalists, IS likes to believe nothing important happened before their religion came along, and the existence of a city that was thriving 2,000 years before Mohammed came along didn’t thrill them. They captured it last May and murdered every archaeologist they could get their hands on, and then started blowing up pre-Islamic temples.
Of course all of this makes for great TV, but what high-profile captures like Palmyra masked was that across northern Syria and Iraq ISIS was steadily losing ground. Stiffening resistance from the Iraqi army, and now the major intervention by Russia, Iran and Shia militias on the side of Assad’s government, have hurt the group badly and sucked in a growing percentage of their available forces. That’s left them badly overstretched along wide fronts and non-jihadist groups, especially the Kurds, have taken advantage of it. The territory controlled by Syrian Kurds has increased by 186% in the last 12 months, all of it at the expense of ISIS.
Meanwhile, the Iraqis are grinding down the territory ISIS controls inside their country. There’s still a huge area under jihadi occupation, but the key city of Ramadi was recaptured last month. This is a major transport and communication hub on the strategic Euphrates river, and its loss is a major blow to the islamists.
Now the Pentagon is looking at how it can accelerate the collapse. There’s no appetite in the West for a major deployment, but parts of a brigade from 101st Airborne Division are moving into theatre right now to take on a training role. The plan is that they’ll work to increase the effectiveness of existing groups, mostly the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga. This looks like a far better plan than trying to create new pro-US groups, which has expensively failed. With the UK and France contributing air power to the campaign, and British Special Forces already on the ground as well, NATO is giving anti-ISIS forces a significant boost.
The key objective now has to be to keep the focus on defeating the jihadis instead of getting side-tracked with other issues. The Syrian government and its allies in Iran and Lebanon are no threat to the West, but Islamic State definitely is. The priority here has to be dealing with the people who want to kill us, not the ones that just don’t like us very much.
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