The Fronts in Syria
Faced with a spirited defense by Kurdish People's Protection units and Free Syrian Army fighters, both backed by persistent airstrikes, the Islamic State has proved unable to seize Kobani, which is more important symbolically than strategically. In fact, the Islamic State has lost more than a thousand fighters while trying to seize the town and now finds itself on the verge of defeat as Kobani's defenders counterattack and reclaim territory in and around it.
As Stratfor has previously explained, Kobani is a severe drain on the Islamic State, depriving it of large numbers of fighters and many of its core combat-hardened veterans, who have proved effective in company sized maneuver warfare. Indeed, by the time the Islamic State was being pushed out of Kobani, it was dispatching fresh recruits with very little training; some less than 18 years of age. The Islamic State would have been better served to concentrate on an objective that was not as heavily backed by deadly coalition air power. That Kobani is of such minimal strategic importance reinforces the folly of the Islamic State's repeated and costly attempts to seize the town.
With the battle for Kobani all but lost in the north, the Islamic State finds itself forced onto the defensive, north and northeast of Raqqa. The Islamic State may still launch offensives in the Aleppo governorate, but the chances for success in the area are slight, given the losses sustained and continuing coalition air cover.
The continued government presence in Deir el-Zour is a thorn in the side of the Islamic State. Events in Iraq and Kobani had distracted the group in Deir el-Zour, allowing government forces to widen their perimeter and attempt to seize the city. Last December, however, the Islamic State finally turned its attention back on Deir el-Zour and, with thousands of reinforcements from Anbar and areas of Syria, launched a surprise counterattack.
Though they initially pushed loyalist forces back in a number of areas and reached the perimeter of a critical airfield, the Islamic State failed to marshal the forces necessary to press its offensive. The loyalists, including a large number of the elite Republican Guard in well-defended positions, complicated the Islamic State's efforts. Government forces remained firm in their determination to maintain a presence in Deir el-Zour and have dispatched significant reinforcements to their positions around the area.
Over the past two weeks, the loyalists, backed by air power and fresh reinforcements, have gone on the offensive once more. The Islamic State has been unable to adequately defend against these attacks and has lost previously captured territory on Saqer Island and in the strategically located village of Al-Mari'iyyah near the military airport.
The Islamic State's reversals in Kobani and Deir el-Zour have been some of the harshest in Syria since the group declared itself the head of a caliphate. However, the militant group is hardly less dangerous, as its continued presence in vast areas of Syria attests. The Islamic State is particularly dangerous in eastern Homs province and may seek to capitalize on recent infighting between the Syrian government and the Kurds in al-Hasaka.
Still, the extremist group is increasingly beleaguered as it faces multiple difficult fronts against rebels, Kurdish fighters and loyalists. The evolving situation in Iraq is also increasing the demand on the Islamic State's limited fighters and resources, spreading the group thinner. Moreover, coalition air power has repeatedly struck the oil infrastructure controlled by the group, impacting its ability to finance its efforts. Ultimately, however, the greatest threat to the Islamic State is internal: A considerable number of reports point to dissent within the ranks and from the citizenry forced to live under the group's harsh rule.
The Fight in Iraq
In Iraq, the struggle to dislodge the Islamic State from its territorial holdings continues at a slow pace. The rapid advances made by the group last summer have been checked by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes coupled with various Iraqi ground forces. The coalition has also provided combat guidance, intelligence, training and logistics. Weapons such as MILAN anti-tank missile systems have been widely employed by the peshmerga to great effect because of the training provided. Iran has also been supportive of some Iraqi forces outside the structure of the U.S.-led coalition. Shiite militias ranging from professional and experienced units to newly minted volunteer battalions have added their weight to the forces cobbled together to resist the Islamic State. This weight, much like in Syria, has weakened the Islamic State, allowing the group's opponents various gains in the effort to displace militants from major population areas.
In Anbar province, along the Euphrates River Valley west of Baghdad, success has been mixed at best for Iraqi security forces. All of the major urban areas are contested or occupied by the Islamic State. Furthermore, for every village security forces retake, another is lost to an Islamic State counterattack. In many places, security forces are surrounded in pockets, stuck protecting key infrastructure such as Haditha Dam.
Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, has been the biggest success story for Iraqi security forces so far. A combination of Iraqi army, police, peshmerga, Shiite militias and Iranian advisers with additional artillery support has successfully removed the Islamic State. However, this has come at a cost, as allegations of atrocities against Sunni civilians provide fuel for further sectarian strife.
The most recent operational success has been in the far north in areas around Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and currently the uncontested seat of the Islamic State in northern Iraq. The peshmerga, bolstered by coalition air power and select Iraqi army forces such as the elite Golden Brigades, have retaken territory around Mosul Dam, Rabi'ah border crossing, and much of the area around Sinjar. Last week, around 5,000 peshmerga drove to a critical intersection east by northeast of Tal Afar, severing an important supply line into Mosul. While this action will not sever logistical flows, it will extend the supply line and increase the friction of transit into the city. The ring around Mosul on the western, northern and eastern sides is being constricted by peshmerga, who have used artillery rockets on the city itself to interdict a reported gathering of fighters. Firing rockets is a dangerous tactic, however, because Sunni Arab civilian casualties could bolster support for the Islamic State.
All of these northern operations are just preparation for an offensive on Mosul itself, but the Islamic State is doing more than just hunkering down. Throughout the north they have unleashed assaults on various points along the line against peshmerga positions. While they have failed to capture territory, many of the offensives have caused relatively heavy casualties in the peshmerga ranks. These offensives are likely being done to spread peshmerga forces as thinly as possible, blunting their ability to concentrate on Islamic State positions. As of now, the Islamic State has spent a lot of resources but has been unsuccessful in breaking through the peshmerga constriction around Mosul.
It will require a massive offensive to finally dislodge the Islamic State from Mosul. The Iraqi army will need to push north and close the southern approach along the Tigris River Valley. Security forces are still invested around Tikrit and Beiji, where they have had limited success for months. Much of the army (and police) is also still reeling from last year's collapse. Coalition forces are training Iraqis, but it takes time to produce capable forces. Aside from the soldiers, the most significant gaps revealed last summer were in leadership — at every level from the squad leader to the division commander. It is far easier to give a soldier basic training skills than it is to train a platoon leader or battalion commander. In addition, many of the competent units in the Iraqi army are being held in Baghdad to secure the seat of the government. It has been difficult to convince decision-makers to send them north for what is sure to be protracted urban warfare.
Ultimately, much has to happen for Iraqi security forces to seriously invest in Mosul. Even then, the military approach is only a partial solution to the larger problem of Sunni support for militants. Some elements of the Sunni tribal structure are supportive of Baghdad, and there are plans to create a national guard for each province to galvanize and organize Sunni support against the Islamic State. But these plans are in their nascent stages and have not been executed in a way that would affect northern disposition. Plans to liberate Mosul will begin in a few months, at the earliest, and the ensuing fight will last months more. Meanwhile, the fight against the Islamic State in the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq will be a years-long fight. However, it will be hard for the various forces arrayed against the group to sustain their focus, as they will also deal with internal disputes over their own self-interests, sectarianism and resource control.