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IS Momentum Blunted But No Signs Group ‘Out of Steam’

The spontaneous celebrations popping up in towns and neighborhoods as Iraqi forces and Shi'ite militias advanced on Islamic State fighters in and around the city of Tikrit have all but gone.

Iraqi officials give various reasons for why the offensive has paused or stalled. Some have even called for more help from whomever is willing to give it.

They are all signs, say analysts and even some U.S. officials, that the demise of the Islamic State is not yet within sight.

“It’s too early to say that the pendulum is swinging,” said terror expert J.M. Berger, co-author of "ISIS: The State of Terror."

Even before Iraqi forces stalled outside Tikrit, an analysis earlier this month by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) contained a blunt assessment of the lack of progress in efforts to roll back the Islamic State.

“ISIS core control zones inside Iraq and Syria have not shifted significantly since anti-ISIS operations began in June 2014,” it said, noting the anti-IS effort had only managed to clear IS from several of its “major frontier positions” in Iraq and Syria.

That is a trade-off ISW military analyst Christopher Harmer believes the Islamic State is more than willing to make.

“They have shown the ability to fight in the open as a nation state contract, but that's not really their peak ability,” Harmer said.

“Where they have the competitive advantage is in exploding IEDs, suicide vests, suicide bombers, vehicular IEDs - all these things that gave the American war machine so much trouble in Iraq, that’s going to be nearly impossible for the Peshmerga and the Iraq security forces to overcome,” he said.

Those hoping for an end to the Islamic State have also pinned their hopes to reports of infighting and to reports the group has taken to executing would-be defectors, dozens at a time.

Harmer cautioned against seeing such reports as a “a sign of weakness.”

“Internal executions are always a hallmark of totalitarian regimes. It happened in China, happened in Russia, happened in Nazi Germany, happened in imperial Japan,” he said. “It’s a sign of this is a totalitarian regime and that’s how they govern.”

Top U.S. intelligence officials have also been wary of writing any epitaphs for the Islamic State.

“I do think we are seeing right now some very serious indicators that ISIL’s engine is suffering,” CIA Director John Brennan told the Council on Foreign Relations last week, using another acronym for the group. “That doesn’t mean it’s out of steam.”

Brennan said despite efforts to publicize the Islamic State’s setbacks, “a significant number of individuals ... are traveling to Iraq or Syria, trying to join up forces with ISIL.”

U.S. officials have also declined to change their estimate of the overall size of the Islamic State’s fighting force, sticking to a range of 20,000 to 32,000 fighters, due in large part to the continued influx of foreign fighters.

Terror analysts also say as the Islamic State has taken losses in Iraq and Syria, the group has managed to tout successes elsewhere. Notably in Libya, where IS appears to be exercising a degree of command and control over local forces, and in Nigeria, where Boko Haram has pledged its allegiance.

Terror expert and author J.M. Berger says gains like those in Libya and Nigeria are significant. He also says it will take more than a fraying along the edges of the Islamic State’s holdings in Iraq and Syria to deal the would-be caliphate a significant blow.

“What’s really critical for their legitimacy purposes is going to be to hold Mosul and Raqqa,” Berger said. “I think they can take a lot of losses up to those two cities before their legitimacy really starts to suffer.”

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