ISIS Is Having A Rough Day

Smoke Over Kobane Oct 22Kai Pfaffenbach/ReutersSmoke and dust rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border on Oct. 22, 2014.

The Kurdish forces defending the border town of Kobane in Syria put the finishing touches on one of ISIS’s biggest defeats this week.

According to Reuters, ISIS has withdrawn weapons from Kobane and the city of around 50,000 is now totally under the control of Peshmerga fighters.

ISIS invested considerable resources in fighting for the town. As the Brookings Institution’s Will McCants explained in October, ISIS’s commitment to overtaking certain peripheral areas had more to do with prophecy and religion than with the strategic value of their targets.

ISIS lost as many as 1,500 fighters in the first three months of the battle, fighting for a town whose potential downfall only dragged Turkey and the US even deeper into the campaign against them.

The Kobane siege now appears to be a big strategic miscalculation. And it isn’t the jihadists’ only recent setback. The Iraqi government announced today that it was ending military operations in Diyala, suggesting that the area immediately to the north of Baghdad had largely been cleansed of the group. The announcement came after the Iraqi army retook villages in Diyala Province close to the border with Iran.

As McCadts explained in another article, Baghdad is another un-strategic target with deep emotional and historic resonance for ISIS. Even though the group dreams of founding a new Islamic empire centered in Iraq’s ancient capital, the jihadists can’t realistically take or hold the city and only wasted weapons and manpower in attempting to do so.

Meanwhile, the US-led airstrikes are paying tactical dividends. The anti-ISIS coalition carried out 17 airstrikes around Kobane over the weekend and destroyed several ISIS bunkers and vehicles around Mosul.

At the same time, this string of coalition successes is no guarantee of future, absolute victory.

ISIS claimed to have executed one of its two Japanese hostages on Jan 25. And today, the LA Times published a harrowing account of life in Mosul. “Religious minorities are confined to prison camps,” the article reports, adding that “basic services scarce and prices soaring even as the quality of fuel and water deteriorates.”

The city and its nearly 1 million inhabitants remains inaccessible to outsiders. And ISIS’s domain in Syria remains largely unchanged in recent months and may even be increasing.

Even if the group has suffered two recent defeats, its ability to hold significant territory and pull off attacks that shock and galvanize their perceived enemies is still very much intact.

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