The Islamic State Faces a Punishing New Year

4 MINS READDec 29, 2015 | 22:03 GMT
The Islamic State Faces a Punishing New Year
Syrian pro-government fighters guard an outpost in the Tal Sharba area on the outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Dec. 27.

It has not been a good week for the Islamic State. Though far from defeated, the group is nevertheless being harried across several fronts, experiencing significant losses in Syria as well as Iraq — Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Ramadi today to highlight the Iraqi army's victory there. The Islamic State's overstretched forces are contending with multiple offensives against them and continuous, punishing airstrikes.

In northern Syria, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces are driving their offensive onward, crossing the Euphrates River in numbers after seizing the Tishrin dam over the weekend. They are now advancing westward toward the Islamic State-held town of Manbij in northern Aleppo. The success of the offensive has thrown Islamic State elements in the area into disarray. The Syrian Democratic Forces are now in a position to threaten the Islamic State's supply lines, even as the rebels prepare for another critical offensive to push the militant group out of its self-declared capital of Raqqa. 

Syrian government forces, with backing from foreign militias and the Russian air force, have also been pushing hard into Islamic State territory. The Syrian army is expanding its control over terrain close to the formerly besieged Kweiris air base, where a number of Syrian loyalists held position for years against persistent Islamic State attacks. On Dec. 29 the Syrian government also reportedly took back the strategic town of Maheen, 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the vital M5 highway controlled by the Islamic State.

The Islamic State is also engaged in pitched battles against rebel forces — specifically rebels from the Marea operations room (a grouping of different rebel factions that coordinate their actions together) — advancing eastward near the Turkish border in northern Aleppo. Over the last month, these rebels have gradually retaken several villages and defensive positions from the Islamic State, though extremist forces managed to reverse some gains with sporadic counterattacks.

As forces loyal to Damascus and the various rebel groups continue to push the Islamic State back on several fronts, there is a risk of a power vacuum emerging in some locations — particularly northern Aleppo. It could lead to increased friction and infighting between some of the key participants in the conflict. For example, the Syrian Democratic Forces' push across the Euphrates is already alarming Ankara, which previously vowed to stop the Kurds from expanding westward toward Afrin. The Turks, already concerned by the growing clout of the Kurdish People's Protection Units on the border, could act to stop the Kurds from creating a contiguous territorial entity from Afrin to Kobani. However, such an action would complicate Turkey's relationship with the United States, because Washington has been a key supporter of the Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against the Islamic State.

As Syrian loyalist forces push northward and eastward from the Kweiris air base, they are also getting closer to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are moving westward. The Syrian loyalists, as well as the Russian air support backing them, have essentially avoided clashing with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces so far. However, as the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Russian-backed loyalist forces meet up, the risk of the two sides' coming into contact increases. It could have ramifications for U.S. and Russian efforts to de-conflict operations in Syria.

The Islamic State is hardly defeated, but the group has suffered significant reversals in recent weeks that highlight its growing vulnerability on multiple fronts. The Islamic State is unlikely to be pushed back everywhere in the short term, and it is still capable of carrying out its own offensive operations, as it has done in Deir el-Zour over the last few days. However, it is increasingly difficult for the group to achieve the major battlefield victories it won previously as it stretches its forces thin and encounters persistent aerial attacks.

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