October 21, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Uneasy State of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria

• While predictions of the Islamic State’s demise are premature, for the first time the group is facing multiple effective fronts in two countries

• The U.S.-led coalition has reversed last year’s ‘Iraq First’ approach, which emphasized ground pressure in Iraq and airstrikes in Syria

• The loosening of international support restrictions, evolving mission parameters, and a new coalition of Arabs and Kurds all have the potential to pressure the group along its main supply routes in northern Syria

• In Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are slowing squeezing the group’s position around Ramadi, while in Bayji, Iranian-backed forces have finally retaken the long-contested area.


While the Russian military escalation in Syria in support of the Assad regime has received attention for its lack of action against its stated target, the so-called Islamic State, the terrorist group is not without challengers. There have been notable and sustained movements against the group on more fronts than it has faced since it coalesced in the turmoil of Iraq and Syria. The conditions that gave rise to the group’s explosive growth still persist, but the military vacuum in which it once moved freely is finally being filled with capable opponents.

Up until now, the Islamic State has been able to respond to pressure in any given area by shifting to more hospitable territory. Since 2010 in Iraq and later in Syria, the Islamic State has maintained the ability to move when faced with pressure. Predictions of an imminent or even near-term demise of the group in either country is hopelessly optimistic, but at least the group is now being pressured in a more systematic manner.

In Syria, until now the pressure on the Islamic State has been the somewhat effective but geographically limited operations by Syrian Kurds, aided by U.S. airstrikes. However, in recent weeks, a strategy of isolating, strangling, and then assaulting the so-called Caliphate’s capital of Raqqa is looking more likely. While Turkey’s opposition to arming the Syrian Kurds is a serious obstacle, the newly formed Syrian Democratic Forces (made of up Kurds, Arabs, and a smattering of Assyrian Christians) could help close off the terror group’s Main Supply Routes (MSR) north of Raqqa, cutting it off from the Turkish border. Increased airstrikes and ground forces to the south and east could function as an effective pincer move that might bear fruit in coming months.

Russian airstrikes have actually enabled the Islamic State to make some gains around Aleppo, but have also forced the West and the Gulf states to increase material support to rebel groups fighting Assad as well as the Islamic State. One result of the Russian intervention is a jolt to the yearlong stasis in which groups were supplied just well enough to not lose but not enough to win. Concerns about extremist groups obtaining supplies and weapons remain valid, but the increased support for those groups deemed acceptably ‘moderate’ might be a turning point in a war that has seen so many turning points it just spins in place.

In Iraq, the Islamic State is facing two separate offensives simultaneously. The Iraqi army and security forces (ISF) have made incremental but meaningful advances against the group in the vital city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad. All reports from the Iraqi government concerning its gains over the Islamic State should remain suspect, but it is now obvious that the Islamic State is being squeezed into the center of the city. It is uncertain how much of a loss the group will sustain if it defends the city; it might instead slink away, leaving a nightmare of land mines and booby traps, confident it can return again since the underlying issues are not improving.

In the long-contested refinery town of Bayji, Iranian-backed Shi’a militias have finally gained control over most of the area following a year-long battle that defied all expectations of an earlier victory. The prospect of Shi’a militias taking over more territory will not sit well with Sunni tribes, so the temporary victory—which is undeniably important—needs to be followed up with other non-sectarian solutions.

Iraq and Syria remain fertile ground for groups such as the Islamic State, and the group will not be destroyed in either country regardless of the rhetoric coming from various coalitions. Still, the group can be dislodged and diminished—which, in the devastated lands of Iraq and Syria, counts as a real victory, even if untenable without larger reform.


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