News / Middle East

    Fewer Fighters in Iraq/Syria as IS Focuses on 'Third Capital'

    FILE - Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road at the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, June 23, 2014.
    FILE - Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road at the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, June 23, 2014.

    Some U.S. officials are heralding new intelligence on the number of Islamic State (IS) fighters as a sign the tide is starting to turn in the battle against the terror group but there are concerns the self-declared caliphate’s larger, global strategy remains very well intact.

    The terror group, also known as ISIL or ISIS, now has a force in Iraq and Syria of just 19,000 to 25,000 fighters according to the most recent assessment, the White House said Thursday.

    National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne called it “the lowest assessed range since we began conducting rigorous reviews of the group’s manpower.”

    Earlier estimates had put the number of IS frontline fighters at anywhere from 20,000 to 32,000, including what defense officials said were about 17,500 “hardcore members.”

    The new, lower estimate reflects a variety of factors, including battlefield deaths, desertions and recruiting shortfalls.

    “They continue to be a substantial threat, but the potential numbers have declined,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “ISIL is having more difficulty than they’ve had before in replenishing their ranks.”

    No 'Knockout' Punch

    The downgrade of the IS force in Iraq and Syria comes almost a year-and-a-half after the U.S. and its coalition partners began launching airstrikes against the group, credited with killing as many as 28,000 fighters. But until recently, U.S. officials had said IS was able to replenish its ranks, in large part due to a constant influx of about 1,000 foreign fighters a month, many coming across the porous Turkish-Syrian border.

    “That’s a testament to the efforts of our partners on the ground,” said Earnest, who credited Turkey with cracking down on the border. “It also is a testament to the success that we’re having in starting to staunch the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and in Syria.”

    Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 4, 2016.
    Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 4, 2016.

    Still, there is a high degree of wariness.

    “ISIL is not likely to go down by a single knockout punch,” a U.S. official told VOA on condition of anonymity. But he added, “The coalition’s repeated body blows against ISIL are wearing on the group."

    On the Rise in Libya

    Yet even as IS’s numbers appear to be on the decline in Iraq and Syria, the group’s numbers in Libya are on the rise.

    Pentagon officials Thursday confirmed figures previously reported by VOA that IS is now up to about 5,000 fighters in Libya - and growing.

    Included in that number, officials say, are numerous key military commanders and officials, including Abu Ali al-Anbari, a top deputy who previously reported directly to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in Syria.

    Such direct linkage to IS’s core leadership is unique among the group’s many self-declared provinces.

    “That’s what fundamentally different about Libya,” says a U.S. official also speaking on condition of anonymity. “Libya is a true branch.”

    At the White House Thursday, spokesman Josh Earnest tried to downplay concerns about the growing IS presence there, saying it is “dangerous but it’s different” from the group’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

    “We’ve been mindful of these other places,” he said. “We’re going to continue to watch how the threat in Libya evolves and we’re going to continue to be prepared to take action.”

    Tightening its Grip in Libya

    Already, the Pentagon has put special forces on the ground in Libya to look for groups “who might be worthy of U.S. support” while U.S. and European diplomats work to support a potential unity government.

    But there are fears, the longer it takes for the U.S. and its European allies to act, the stronger IS’s grip on Libya will become.

    “The situation in Libya grows much more grave by the day,” said Nathaniel Barr, a research manager at Valens Global, who cautions the drop in IS’s force size in Iraq and Syria is not entirely due to U.S. and coalition efforts.

    “A large part of that is the Islamic State redirecting foreign fighters, specifically foreign fighters from the Sahel, North Africa and parts of east Africa as well to Libya rather than Syria and Iraq,” he said.

    “This is a long term approach,” Barr added. “Sirte could be the third capital of the Islamic State after Raqqa and Mosul.”

    Smaller Force May Be Strategic

    Officials and analysts also warn against reading too much into the smaller IS fighting force in Iraq and Syria, saying the group’s leadership is showing few signs of conceding.

    “ISIS can actually survive even if it loses its terrain inside Iraq and Syria,” says to Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

    FILE - A Jaish Al-Islam (army of Islam) brigade fighter prepares to launch rockets towards forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad located beside Damascus International airport, from the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Feb. 24, 2015.
    FILE - A Jaish Al-Islam (army of Islam) brigade fighter prepares to launch rockets towards forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad located beside Damascus International airport, from the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Feb. 24, 2015.

    U.S. officials estimate IS has lost 40 percent of the territory it held at its peak in Iraq and anywhere from five to 30 percent of the territory it once claimed in Syria.

    But Gambhir says how much territory has been lost is not as important as where that territory is.

    “That pressure is on the edges of its core areas of control,” she said. “No one is forcing Isis to defend its core areas of control along the Iraqi-Syrian border, along the Euphrates River Valley.”

    There are also concerns that the ongoing civil war in Syria could play to the terror group’s advantage, as Russia targets the multitude of opposition groups arrayed against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad

    “It’s unlikely any party will try to expel ISIS from eastern Syria or try to hold that terrain because so many actors are focused on the fight in Western Syria,” Gambhir warned.

    And the U.S. and it’s allies could see their options dwindle.

    “As Russia slowly wears down and radicalizes the Syrian opposition, it’s really taking away any kind of anti-ISIS force that we would want to deploy,” she said.

    VOA's Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb and White House correspondent Mary Alice Salinas contributed to this report.


    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.

    You May Like

    Video For Many US Veterans, the Vietnam War Continues

    More than 40 years after it ended, war in Vietnam and America’s role in it continue to provoke bitter debate, especially among those who fought in it

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    100 immigrants graduated Friday as US citizens in New York, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in cities across country

    Family's Fight Pays Off With Arlington Cemetery Burial Rights for WASPs

    Policy that allowed the Women Airforce Service Pilots veterans to receive burial rites at Arlington had been revoked in 2015

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: williweb from: Phoenix Arizona USA
    February 05, 2016 7:19 AM
    IS is putting on a brave face, but the fact remains they are running like dogs with their tails between their legs. We have cleansed the world of tens of thousands of islamic psychotic murderers.

    by: annymous from: usa
    February 05, 2016 5:11 AM
    despite several air strike,the number is still big. the questions why ?because we are fighting ideology of Islam. that message is spreading by internet. the best course of action was suggested by senator Cruz which have carpet bomber that inflict serious damage and warn any one think to join them ,he will understand that he is going to be killed and only hope for him is 72 virgin!!!!!.once the democrat refuse to hit the strong hold aggressively even there is civil causality could be killed ,we will not win the war and the damage will spread and it will be serious international problem that pose threat to the whole world. in additional, look at the history of isis, they started by Osama bin laden then in Pakistan ,Iraq, Syria ,Libya and soon in Egypt which population is 90 million and will have something in the news everyday about killing and massive refugee problem . who is going to blamed? I blame the indecisive democrat whom refuse to understand that immediate solution is needed to cut the cancer instead will be spread rapidly

    by: meanbill from: USA
    February 04, 2016 11:41 PM
    REMEMBER? .. The terrorists attack the enemy where they are weakest and unprepared, and withdraw when the enemy reinforces those positions, to regroup and attack the enemy where they are weakest and unprepared again, and all the terrorists around the world repeat this same strategy over and over again, [and now], when the US and NATO says they are making gains on the ground against the ISIL terrorist army Caliphate, is the ISIL terrorist army withdrawing to regroup and attack the US and NATO elsewhere in Libya, the US, or Europe? .. Who knows where? .. The terrorists are undefeated and a real world power now? .. they pick the fight and the battle?

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora