IS may be down but it is not out

By Jonathan Marcus
Defence and diplomatic correspondent

So-called Islamic State (IS) is under growing pressure in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

It is losing territory and personnel, and its cumulative losses represent something of a strategic setback.

IS may be down but it is not out.

IS thrives on instability. The continuing chaos in the region makes it very difficult to defeat IS in the conventional sense of the term.

Indeed, the very success of its opponents carries with it the possibility of exacerbating sectarian tensions, which again could play into IS hands.

Growing pressure

The organisation’s declining fortunes are most apparent in Libya, where a combined offensive by two key militias aligned with the new Government of National Accord is squeezing the group’s main coastal stronghold of Sirte.

The roots of IS in Libya are more recent. The country’s clan and tribal structure perhaps more resistant.

Whatever the reason, its opponents have made rapid progress since their offensive was unleashed, pushing into Sirte and reportedly securing the port facility.

The US estimates that some 5,000 IS fighters are in Libya.

It was seen very much as a refuge by the IS leadership. Many reportedly sent their families there to escape the growing pressure in Syria.

Western special forces are said to be operating in support of some militias but the overall weight of the battle is being borne by the Libyans themselves.

Things are also turning badly against IS in northern Syria.

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have reportedly cut the main supply route into the IS-held town of Manbij.

The town, about 40km (25 miles) from the border between Syria and Turkey, is a crucial logistical hub for IS and for its fighters entering Syria.

Its capture would isolate the de facto IS capital of Raqqa from its last key supply route coming from Turkey.

This follows similar efforts to cut lines of communication between Raqqa and Mosul in northern Iraq.

The Syrian government – backed by its own and Russian air power – has launched fresh offensives of its own, both in and around Aleppo.

It has also secured a finger of territory extending north westwards from the road junction at Ithriya, towards Raqqa.

It is clear the US and Western-supported Kurdish and Arab fighters as well as the Russian-backed Syrian military are having the most success against IS.

Smaller, weaker rebel groups have had more mixed fortunes.

But there is no evidence of any actual practical co-operation between Washington and Moscow.

In Iraq, US-trained security forces have been pushing to encircle Falluja, backed up by various largely Shia militias.

There remains huge concern for civilians trapped in the city, though at least one humanitarian corridor has opened to help some to escape.

Falluja, though, for now may mark the limits of the capabilities of Iraq’s military.

US experts are said to be sceptical about its capacity to take the much more significant target of Mosul; Iraq’s second-largest city and the headquarters of IS in Iraq.

Iraqi forces are said to be over-stretched and with fragile logistics.

Major operations may require significant additional injections of US support.

Divide and rule

There is no doubt, though, that IS is on the back foot after a string of setbacks, not least the fall of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria.

Whatever the broader strategic picture, these setbacks matter since they shatter the idea of IS as all-conquering and may help to sow dissent in IS ranks and to deter foreign recruits from offering themselves up to the slaughter.

But IS can respond in various ways.

The series of bomb attacks in the Iraqi capital Baghdad show that IS still has irons in the fire that it can use to its advantage.

And, as mentioned above, the very success of IS’s multitude of opponents serves only to complicate a variety of other cross-cutting sectarian and strategic differences.

Consider just two examples:

  • The advance of significant Kurdish forces towards the Turkish border with Syria has alarmed Ankara, which is waging a brutal battle against PKK rebels within its own borders.
  • The involvement of Shia militias in the encirclement of Sunni Falluja in Iraq raises all sorts of potential problems.

This highlights the constant danger of IS prospering anew from the wider instability in the region.

Libya has barely begun to rebuild after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime and a period of bitter internal conflict.

Syria beyond those areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad is a failed state with a patchwork of militias, many of them Islamist, as hostile to the West as they are to the Assad government.

And in Iraq, the government has failed – some would say it has barely tried – to take on a less sectarian hue and provide the broader governance that the country so badly needs.

So while Western leaders dust off their maps and claim significant reverses for IS, the very factors that allowed the organisation to establish itself in the first place remain.

That is not a setting for the strategic defeat of IS nor for the defeat of its ideas, which one way or another have the capacity to leap great distances and to inspire individuals or groups a continent away from its heartland.