ISIS gains halted, but defeat not on horizon

In the face of an increasingly credible opposition, ISIS is unable to make significant new advances, experts said

Paul Crompton
Paul Crompton - Al Arabiya News
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U.S.-led airstrikes and steadily strengthening forces in Iraq are containing advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but are by no means destroying it, experts told Al Arabiya News.

ISIS’s inability to take the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane after an offensive lasting a month and a half, and its routing from two Iraqi towns earlier this week, are evidence that its many opponents are beginning to contain the group, analysts said.

“There’s no question that the airstrikes are containing ISIS,” said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut, adding that the U.S-led coalition appeared to have the edge in the “war of attrition.”

Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in the face of an increasingly credible opposition - mainly from Kurdish forces and Iraqi government troops - ISIS is unable to make significant new gains.

“ISIS has failed to hold ground wherever Iraqi and Kurdish troops pushed forward in a determined way, particularly when they received U.S. air support,” Knights said.

Matthew Hoh, a fellow at the U.S.-based Center for International Policy, said while ISIS enjoys considerable support within its own Sunni-majority areas, the recent small loss of territory and apparent inability to expand further is down to a “limitation on its ability to control territory outside of its own sect.”

Michael Ryan, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said without the support of Sunni tribes in Iraq, ISIS is likely to lose its foothold.

“The U.S. coalition needs to work on quietly winning over the Sunni Arab tribes as much as any other measure it’s currently pursuing,” Ryan said.

“In the highly charged sectarian atmosphere, this will be extremely difficult but quite possible over the longer term.”
Knights said with the shock value of ISIS’s initial lightning advances wearing off, its staying power is beginning to be re-evaluated.

“State power is now reasserting itself in numbers, resources, determination. And the number of ISIS setbacks is now sufficient that the media is reassessing the inflated image of ISIS that has built up since the summer,” he added.

However, experts say the group will not lose its grip over the large swathes of Iraq and Syria under its control anytime soon.

“Losing a few battles is normal in a war,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington.
The recent loss of two towns in Iraq “wouldn’t necessarily be a sign of the weakening of ISIS. It’s more likely a sign of the strengthening of their opposition, now that more countries and people are in the fray and their opposition is growing in resolve, financing and material.”

Chris Chivvis, political scientist at the U.S.-based RAND Corp think tank, said: “It would be premature to take their difficulties in taking Kobane, or other such incidents, as a sign of any permanent turnaround in the tide of the war. Eventually the tide will turn against them, but it might still be a while.”

Hoh said the conflict’s future is likely to be a “bloody stalemate” along sectarian lines in communities that straddle areas between Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurdish borders.

“Unless of course there’s a political solution that jettisons past inter-sectarian differences to find an equitable political order.”

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