The borders of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria are steadily eroding, but it will likely be months before U.S. and coalition-backed forces are ready to take on the terror group’s strongholds in Mosul or Raqqa.
New estimates from U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) show Islamic State (IS) fighters have lost 40 percent of the territory they once held in Iraq and five percent of the territory they once held in Syria.
“We’ve seen small dust-ups in both the Euphrates and Tigris River valleys but no significant tactical action,” OIR spokesman Col. Steve Warren told Pentagon reporters from Baghdad regarding IS activity in Iraq.
Warren said in Syria, IS fighters were carrying out limited offensive operations along the so-called Mara line in the country’s northwest, making some small gains against regime forces in Aleppo.
The U.S.-led coalition has also been pressuring IS from the air, focusing the majority of its airstrikes in and around Ramadi and Mosul in Iraq and around the terror group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria.
Waiting for Mosul
Since Iraqi forces retook Ramadi from Islamic State fighters last month, there have been growing expectations that Mosul would be next, with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters moving on the city from the north while Iraqi forces attacked from the south.
Yet despite the progress, Col. Warren cautioned a move on Mosul is not imminent.
“Nobody’s ready to really slap the table yet and say, ‘This is it. We’re moving out,’” he said. “This is going to be many months before we’re going to see actual operations for Mosul begin.”
The Pentagon estimates it will need 10 brigades with 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers each to retake Mosul from Islamic State. Two of the brigades are likely to be Kurdish Peshmerga and some will come from the force used to recapture Ramadi. But the others need to be built from scratch, with soldiers going through an average of eight weeks of training before they would be ready for combat.
FILE - U.S. Army soldiers tour St. Elijah's Monastery on Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, Iraq.
Another factor behind the wait to retake Mosul: U.S. military officials have recommended that the brigades that helped retake Ramadi go through another cycle of training before taking part in what is expected to be a bigger and more complex battle.
In the meantime, U.S. officials say they are ramping up efforts to degrade Islamic State’s capabilities by continuing to target the terror group’s oil facilities, its cash reserves and also key officials, especially in and around Raqqa.
Slow approach to Raqqa
Col. Warren said U.S. and coalition-backed forces have also slowly been moving on Raqqa, taking key points to the west and east of the city, forcing Islamic State fighters to expose themselves to airstrikes.
“It’s a process right now of isolation and degradation,” Warren said. “It is certainly feasible that Raqqa can be pressured or even assaulted in the next year.”
But Warren cautioned a lot still depends on the ability to build relationships with anti-Islamic State forces on the ground.
Destroyed buildings are seen in the city of Ramadi, Jan. 16, 2016.
“We have to see how rapidly we can develop some of these partner forces, some of these moderate Syrian opposition forces."
Pentagon officials say the U.S. currently has 3,700 troops in Iraq as part of the ongoing train, advise and assist mission. U.S. special forces, including a specialized expeditionary targeting force, are also on the ground in Iraq and Syria, helping to gather intelligence and to target high ranking Islamic State leaders.
U.S. President Barack Obama recently instructed his national security team to intensify efforts to destroy Islamic Sate cells no matter where they are.