June 24, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Capital Under Threat

• In Syria, the Islamic State’s loss of Tal Abyad and more recent losses near Ayn Issa have put Kurdish rebel forces only 50km of the proclaimed capital of the Islamic State

• The losses are significant enough that the group’s spokesman even had to acknowledge them during a Ramadan audio broadcast, saying the group ‘may lose a battle or battles and may lose towns and areas, but will never be defeated’

• While the Islamic State still controls a vast expanse of land running through the center of Syria to the border with Turkey to Iraq, it now faces something in Syria heretofore unseen: effective and aggressive rebel forces intent on fighting it

• Raqqa is not likely to fall in the near or medium-term but could become a city under siege, dealing the group perhaps its most severe symbolic and strategic blow yet.


After a triumphant month of May, in which the Islamic State seized Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq, June has been a month of defeats for the group, mostly in Syria. The loss of Tal Abyad near the Turkish border was more than a tactical defeat for the Islamic State at the hands of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG); it marks a potential strategic defeat as well. With the most recent YPG moves against the town of Ayn Issa, the Islamic State is facing perhaps its most serious symbolic and meaningful threat since it declared itself a caliphate almost one year ago. Its capital, Raqqa, the center of the group’s authority and image, is under threat.

The threat is enough, and the losses so apparent, that Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State spokesman, acknowledged them in a Ramadan audio broadcast. Stating that ‘God never gave the mujahedeen a promise of victory every time’, Adnani stressed that the group, while experiencing losses, would never be defeated. For a group so obsessed with projecting an image and aura of expansion and domination, having to acknowledge such losses during the month of Ramadan is a marked reversal from last year.

By taking Ayn Issa, the YPG is now only 50 kilometers from Raqqa. What makes the threat to Raqqa so serious is that the YPG is not an ad hoc group of rebel fighters looking to make an easy score and then rest. The Kurdish group is backed by coalition airstrikes and material support, and is methodically moving against the Islamic State. It will not simply stop but rather will have to be stopped by the Islamic State. The Islamic State has been pulling its fighters back into more defensible positions closer to Raqqa, anticipating the coming pressure.

Raqqa is not likely to fall, given the strength of the Islamic State in the city and its importance to the group. It will likely become a city under a siege, however, and be more or less surrounded. That alone would be a big blow to the group; the capital of what it sees as an ever-expanding caliphate so obviously contained. The sustained and undeniable threat to Raqqa will in no measure be the end of the group, but it would be a nice end to some of its mystique.

Elsewhere in Syria, the Islamic State maintains control over a large swath of land cutting through the center of the country, to Turkey and into Iraq. The group has moved more to the west of the country to better avoid coalition airstrikes and take advantage of the new maneuverability it gained by taking the region around Palmyra. Yet even in that region the group faces an unprecedented threat: a determined and capable rebel foe that is moving against the group as much as it is moving against Assad. The rebel group known as Jaysh al-Islam has pushed the Islamic State out of a number of positions southwest of Palmyra. The vastly improved rebel forces in the south, and the Kurdish forces to the north, mean the Islamic State will face constant pressure across several fronts.

While defending its capital against unprecedented threats, the group will also have to decide whether to try to blunt rebel opposition by trying to play a bigger role in fighting the Assad regime or fight the various rebel groups in order to gain materiel and breathing space. The coming summer and autumn months will be crucial in determining the fortunes of not just the Islamic State but of the entire Syrian conflict. The group is in no danger of collapse, but its capital is under pressure and its opponents are more capable than any others it has faced in the civil war.


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