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Despite Coalition Military Gains, No End in Sight in Anti-IS Campaign


Iraqi Shi'ite fighters from the Furqat al-Abbas brigades take up their position during an operation to retake the town of al-Bashir, near Kirkuk, from the Islamic State group, April 10, 2016.

Iraqi Shi'ite fighters from the Furqat al-Abbas brigades take up their position during an operation to retake the town of al-Bashir, near Kirkuk, from the Islamic State group, April 10, 2016.

The Kurdish Peshmerga commander sat on a couch at his headquarters in Sulaymaniyah. On a nearby table there was a bowl of dried fruit and nuts. Two large sniper rifles lay on the floor by his desk.

"The longer ISIS stays, the more it becomes fashionable to youngsters with no hope, to all these youngsters who have been oppressed by the government here, in Syria, in other countries" he said in his British accent, using a common acronym for the Islamic State.

"They are not going to go away. ISIS is not going to be finished as soon as Mosul and Raqqa are taken," he warned. "It's going to be continuous. It's not going to stop."

The assessment just a few weeks ago from Polad Jangi, in charge of counterterrorism operations south of Mosul in the Kirkuk-Sulaymaniyah area, is far more grim than the latest public assessments by U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama.

Map of Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk and Mosul in Iraq.

Map of Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk and Mosul in Iraq.

It also may be much more realistic, however, according to several military and intelligence officials, who say that while gains by the U.S.-led coalition are real, they are on the periphery of Islamic State’s core holdings and are far from a death blow.

"They’re willing to trade space for time," said one U.S. official who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity.

Selective engagement

What worries officials is that while Islamic State is losing ground — up to 40 percent of the terrain it once controlled in Iraq and at least 10 percent of its holdings in Syria — the group is learning a great deal in defeat. Where it once spread out its resources, picking as many fights as it could, it now seems to be choosing its battles more carefully.

FILE - A militant Islamist fighter uses a mobile to film his fellow fighters taking part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014. .

FILE - A militant Islamist fighter uses a mobile to film his fellow fighters taking part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014. .

"What you’re seeing is a prioritization by ISIL on its strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul," the official said, using another acronym for the terror group. "You’re going to see a really tough fight."

There also is concern that the more desperate Islamic State becomes, the more dangerous it may grow.

"It has lost senior leaders, thousands of fighters and territory," a U.S. intelligence official said. "There’s little doubt the group will attempt to compensate."

And it has the experience to do so.

"ISIS actually has a tried and true playbook for its defense and is employing that to ensure it can maintain its core caliphate," said Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. "The organization has mastered, particularly within Iraq, the art of pulling apart the Iraqi security forces."

People inspect the aftermath of a suicide bombing at a soccer field in Iskandariya, 25 miles (about 40 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq, March 26, 2016.

People inspect the aftermath of a suicide bombing at a soccer field in Iskandariya, 25 miles (about 40 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq, March 26, 2016.

She said evidence of Islamic State’s divide-and-conquer strategy already is evident in a series of recent bombings around Baghdad earlier this month, some targeting Shia militias, that has resulted in at least 25 deaths.

Fresh fighters

Steady depletions of the group's manpower also appear to be doing little to stop Islamic State.

More than 25,000 Islamic State fighters may have been killed due to U.S. and coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Until recently, though, both military and intelligence officials estimated the group was able to replenish its forces with about 1,000 new foreign fighters a month. That's about the same rate it was losing them.

Where Syria's foreign fighters came from

Where Syria's foreign fighters came from

Even with an intensified air campaign, the addition of more U.S. special forces and a stepped-up effort from local ground forces in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State force remains formidable.

According to the most recent U.S. intelligence estimates, Islamic State has dropped from a high of about 32,000 fighters to a range of 19,000 to 25,000. Earlier U.S. military estimates had put the number of so-called card-carrying, or core, Islamic State members in Iraq and Syria at about 17,000.

Recent reports that the terror group is being forced to depend on child soldiers, as opposed to using them for propaganda purposes, may also be overblown.

"As disturbing as the idea of child-soldiers is, ISIL still remains largely dependent on drawing its fighters from foreign recruits and adult populations under its control," a U.S. counterterrorism official told VOA on condition of anonymity, adding the group "probably has not shifted to a greater reliance on children."

Body counts

Several U.S. officials and analysts also warn against using the number of fighters as a benchmark for progress.

While one official said a propensity remains for the group to "throw bodies at problems," others describe Islamic State’s tactics as "brilliant" at times.

"If you look at their offensive in Anbar, the one that [Abu Omar al] Shishani led back in 2014, he didn’t use that many men to capture territory," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "He used a relatively light force to capture a significant amount of territory.

"They face an uphill battle, but I also wouldn’t count them out in terms of their ability to surprise us and take territory again," he said.

FILE - Iraqi security forces hold an Islamist State flag which they pulled down at the University of Anbar, in Anbar province July 26, 2015.

FILE - Iraqi security forces hold an Islamist State flag which they pulled down at the University of Anbar, in Anbar province July 26, 2015.

There also are questions as to whether an apparent public relations backlash against Islamic State will do much to hurt the group.

'Core audience'

A survey released earlier this week by ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, based on 3,500 face-to-face interviews, found young people in 16 Arab countries "overwhelmingly reject the extremist group and believe it will fail," with 50 percent calling Islamic State the Middle East’s biggest obstacle.

Still, Gartenstein-Ross cautions it may take many more losses before Islamic State’s narrative of continued growth is put to the test, especially if it is able to conduct additional terror attacks outside Iraq and Syria.

"They have a core audience that’s not viewing them very critically," he said. "So they’re not close to a tipping point in terms of that core audience."

"As long as they control a piece of land, they’re able to control or influence a global jihadist insurgency," warned Haras Rafiq, managing director of Quilliam Foundation, a London-based organization focused on countering extremism.

"That’s what they’re doing," he said. "That’s what’s affecting us here in the West and in Europe and the U.S."

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    Jeff Seldin

    Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

  • 16x9 Image

    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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