ISIS has been steadily losing territory over the past several months as local and coalition forces ramp up airstrikes and coordinate missions on the ground, which could be a signal that the US-led coalition’s underlying strategy in the Middle East is gaining steam.
Iraqi Security Forces supported by the US-led coalition retook the city of Ramadi from ISIS, a key victory against the group also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh.
“We congratulate them on this important operational achievement,” said Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East.
“Coupled with other recent ISIL losses across Iraq and Syria, including at Tikrit, Bayji, al Hawl, the Tishrin Dam, and Sinjar, the seizure of the government center clearly demonstrates that the enemy is losing momentum as they steadily cede territory,” he added.
The coalition trained and armed the Iraqi forces that participated in the Ramadi operation and carried out hundreds of airstrikes against ISIS since the summer, according to AFP.
The US has resisted putting troops on the ground to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, opting instead to run airstrikes and dispatch advisers to train local forces.
And the Ramadi operation “gives us a sense that a major commitment of ground forces is not necessary,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism analyst and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider.
“The framework of the [US] strategy … is decent in that local partners can handle the push against ISIS. … It’s not a complete vindication of the strategy, but it is a vindication of the framework — a framework in which the US has a lighter touch and isn’t committing massive amounts of ground forces.”
It still remains to be seen, however, whether Iraqi forces will be able to hold Ramadi in the long term — and whether there will be tensions between the soldiers holding Ramadi and the Sunni population that lives in the city. If Shia fighters, some of whom are loyal to militias backed by Iran, commit acts of violence against the Sunni populace in Ramadi, that could create a new set of problems.
“There are mixed reports on the extent of the Iranian role” in Ramadi, Gartenstein-Ross said. “… The main thing is how are they treating the population. … The fact that as they have gone in and recaptured territory [in other areas], Shia forces have committed revenge killings against the Sunni population.”
But, for now, it looks like there are sufficient local forces in place to prevent ISIS from recapturing the city, Gartenstein-Ross said.
He added that ISIS’ loss of Ramadi is significant, considering that the city was the terrorist group’s biggest territorial grab over the past year.
And Ramadi isn’t ISIS’ only major loss from the past few months. In November, ground forces backed by US airstrikes cut off one of ISIS’s most important supply routes and retook the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq, where ISIS terrorists kidnapped and enslaved thousands of women from the Yazidi minority to use as sex slaves for militants.
“[Ramadi] coupled with the loss of Sinjar certainly puts pressure on the organisation,” Gartenstein-Ross said of ISIS. “It really does create risk for them given their strategy that’s rooted in momentum.”
ISIS builds support through its message of “remaining and expanding.” So losing territory is significant for the group in that it not only shrinks the size of their so-called “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, but it could also make supporters doubt the group’s message.
“People have been drawn to ISIS not especially because of the charisma of its spokespeople but because they have been so successful in taking land,” Will McCants, an expert on jihadism and author of the recent book, “The ISIS Apocalypse,” told Business Insider in November.
“The advance against ISIS by its enemies had been stalled for months, so we will see how ISIS responds. … It often tries to retake territory elsewhere in order to offset its losses.”
In addition to trying to retake territory elsewhere, ISIS might focus on targets abroad to distract from its losses in Iraq and Syria.
“They might put a focus on … abroad, building up holdings in place like Egypt and Libya, or they might try to channel resources on attacks abroad,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “There are multiple ways they could pivot.”
ISIS has already been expanding in Libya, leading some experts to believe that the group might be attempting to create a back-up capital in Sirte in case its base of operations in Raqqa, Syria, falls.
Another troubling side-effect of ISIS territorial losses in the Middle East is an increasing focus on attacks in Western countries. Most significantly, in November, ISIS-affiliated terrorists carried out attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and hundreds more injured.
“If an extremist group that has seized territory starts to lose it, it will be highly incentivized to turn to terrorist operations that allow for maximizing effects at a lower cost,” Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former Army infantry officer, wrote for War on the Rocks in November after the Paris attacks.
Since its inception, ISIS has projected strength by touting its battlefield successes and using its wealth of financial resources to lure fighters into supporting the group. But now, territorial losses threaten to undercut the group’s main narrative.
“To sustain its brand and supporting global fan base, the Islamic State needs to show success,” Watts wrote. “If it cannot achieve battlefield victories and broadcast them on social media, then its affiliates and global network need to pick up the slack with terrorist attacks that capture the imagination of mass media.”
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