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Conversation: The Islamic State Goes on the Defensive

7 MINS READJan 29, 2015 | 21:30 GMT

Ben Sheen: Hello and thank you for joining us. My name is Ben Sheen. I'm joined here today by Paul Floyd, military analyst. We'll be talking a little bit about the current state of play of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. So Paul, there's been a lot of recent reports coming through about how the Islamic State, they're not making the gains they were previously in some places they're actually being contained. Where do we stand at the moment in place like northern Iraq, and specifically in places like Kobani in Syria?

Paul Floyd: In a very broad sense the Islamic State is on its back foot. A lot of the counteroffensives that have been launched by the various actors backed by Western coalition air, and some of the GCC partners in the area, and air power have done a good job of initially holding the Islamic State and now they are slowly, very slowly, pushing back in some places territorially speaking. In Syria, Kobani, what we've seen is the Kurdish fighters there have eventually had success in pushing the Islamic State out of the city proper. Now the Islamic State is very much within that entire area in that region. They are just outside the city limits so the battle is far from over. But, they've had success in basically keeping the city from falling. And while the city itself frankly is not strategically that important in a grounds for some of the key terrain if you will, for the Islamic State what it has done is made the Islamic State spend a lot of resources in the sense of manpower because they focus on that so much, partly because it became symbolic for them to have a victory there. And smashing themselves against that wall has spent a lot of resources for them.

Ben: And also you mentioned the Kurdish peshmerga who've been involved in that fight as well as fighting in northern Iraq. What have we seen from the peshmerga, because I know there was a lot of expectation for their capability? What have we seen them actually be able to do on the ground?

Paul: After their initial, I would say surprise, because the Islamic State you know, if you talk about Mosul falling last year in the summer, the Islamic State drew up south really and gobbled up a lot of territory and moved toward Baghdad, and really didn't attack Kurdish position for a while. And then, almost suddenly, did. They turned and launched a series of offensives in all sorts of different areas along the Kurdish perimeter, in what we call the Kurdistan Regional Government area and initially grabbed a lot of territory from the Kurds. And the peshmerga did poorly at first, partly because I think they were out of position and not really, this newest generation of fighters hasn't had the experience that some of the older fighters have had against the Saddam regime and from civil wars. But since then, we've had the Western coalition come in and partner with them in training and logistics, and this is more than just air power. There's a whole series of things happening that are supporting these combat units. The Kurds have done well, the peshmerga have done very well. And they've started to take back, what we've seen most recently is they've been pushing in areas west of Mosul really. And that's kind of setting up the actually taking of Mosul, they are driving down from their northern positions to the south, and cutting off supply lines from Mosul to Tel Afar and the Rabi'ah border areas and basically some of the resource bases in Syria. And again this is all setting up eventually that taking of Mosul sometime in the future.

Ben: That's clearly is going to be a significant operation, even with all the coalition air support that we've seen. And that's an interesting point you mentioned. The Islamic State has been able to grab a lot of land initially, but actually the hard part is holding on to it and maintaining their position in the face of what we're seeing is this overwhelming force that's being bolstered by other actors in the region like Iran and support from Iran, Saudi Arabia and obviously the Western component. How do you see that dynamic interplay between the various parts of the coalition evolving in the future perhaps?

Paul: Well there is a lot of room for pitfalls. You get a myriad of various actors that are all getting along right now because they all have their interests aligned in fighting the Islamic State because the Islamic State was such an acute threat through last year. That being said, as the Islamic State, as that threat kind of diminishes, it's very easy for these actors who in times in the past have eagerly shot each other as well, to again turn their guns on each other. This could technically happen before the fighting against the Islamic State even ends. So there's a lot of, when you talk about defeating ISIS or the Islamic State, you know three years out, it's kind of a frightening idea to line that up and think about it in a time sense, how long can these guys keep getting along. And the example I'll bring here is in Iraq, where you've got Shiite militias, both experienced and non-experienced, who are being set up. The idea of setting up a Sunni national guard and getting the Sunni structure behind fighting the Islamic State, which is having its own problems but they're trying to do. Peshmerga, who have recently moved in and grabbed Kirkuk and grabbed a bunch of the oil wealth there. And you look at that and then you've also got Iranian support, for example, and all of these various actors operating together but within proximity to each other is a recipe for infighting. In fact, we've already had allegations of atrocities in Diyala province in Iraq of Shiite militias or some kind of Shiite atrocities of murdering Sunnis. And that kind of adds fuel to the sectarian strife that drives fighting in Iraq right now. So again, think about peshmerga and their idea of Kirkuk and now Baghdad basically scoring off for who owns the oil wealth there. Right now their getting along, again, and the U.S. being there and working with both sides is helping that, but when you think in the long run how long can they get along when you talk about resources and everything else?

Ben: Definitely, and it seems like the Islamic State's been largely contained by the end of 2014 throughout 2015 we might see them begin to be rolled back, and then beyond then is when things could really get interesting.

Paul: Yes. I think the biggest point to that would be I think one of the critical pieces we're still looking for is the Sunni community that is at least tacitly supporting Sunni militancy and the Islamic State. How long they're on board, will they stay on board? We've seen some Sunni support for Baghdad and Iraqi security forces in general. But we haven't seen it down in a critical mass that could really turn over Islamic State territorial holdings right now. And frankly the Islamic State is doing a lot of the things to try through kidnappings and murders are trying to keep that from happening as much as possible.

Ben: It's clearly a complex situation and we'll be tracking closely how it evolves. Paul thank you so much for sharing you're insight today. For more on the situation in Syria and Iraq relating to the Islamic State, please keep reading startfor.com. Thank you.

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