WASHINGTON - As U.S. and coalition partners repeatedly bomb Islamic State fighters trying to capture the Syrian city of Kobani, analysts in the United States warn that the IS organization is an experienced and resilient force that will be hard to defeat.
Despite days of punishing airstrikes in and around the Syrian city of Kobani and inside Iraq, the black and white flag of the Islamic State still stubbornly flies above rooftops from the Turkish border in the west to within miles of Baghdad.
The Islamic State group is now believed to have between 30,000 to 35,000 fighters, significant local Sunni tribal support, and experienced military leaders including top officers from Iraq’s former Baathist army. It is an effective combination, said Ben Connable, senior international analyst with the Rand Corporation
“They’ve been quite adept at applying combined arms, which means they use both direct and indirect fire simultaneously. They maneuver well. They fight hard," said Connable. "They have apparently good leadership that the low level troops have some faith in, so they’ve been very good at not only moving forward and advancing and using all of the weapons they’ve been able to capture, but also they’ve been resilient in the face of counter-attacks and also coalition airstrikes."
Analysts say there also are hundreds of experienced and aggressive Chechen commanders fighting with the Islamic State group, including Omar al Shishani, who has been leading the guerrilla-style offensive in Iraq’s Anbar province, west of the capital.
Shishani and his fighters now are close to Baghdad and its international airport. But analysts say the group would have a hard time taking the city, which has seven million people and strong, Shi’ite militias ready to protect it.
Rather, they will just try to destroy it from within by instigating a full-blown sectarian war in the capital, said W. Andrew Terrill, a research professor at the U.S. Army War College.
“They’re going to send in a lot of suicide bombers into Baghdad, they are going to try and provoke some uprisings in Sunni neighborhoods within Baghdad, and they are going to try and make the country as ungovernable as they possibly can,” said Terrill.
Hundreds of miles away, the Islamic State has launched a conventional military front against the Syrian city of Kobani. The city is a border crossing point into Turkey, in a region rich in wheat. IS has focused on capturing significant economic resources in both Syria and Iraq in its determination to set up a caliphate.
But winning Kobani despite coalition airstrikes also would prove an important propaganda victory, according to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Showing that the air campaign is not slowing them down is important. They have a model which seeks to attract more people to their cause, and as such, showing that they haven’t been slowed down despite the fact that these outside countries have been drawn in is helpful on a propaganda front and also helpful psychologically to the organization,” said Gartenstein-Ross.
In command of the Islamic State group is Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, an Iraqi who has proved to be a ruthless and shrewd commander, said Terrill.
“He’s recruited good people to work for him in terms of their skills and their ability to get things done," he said. "About a third of the people he’s got in very senior positions I understand are former officers in Saddam’s army, so he really seems able to be someone who’s very good at identifying talent and promoting talented people.”
Al Baghdadi reportedly has appointed emirs to control local areas and granted military commanders wide leeway in achieving the overall goal of seizing and controlling territory. But Gartenstein-Ross said that ultimately may prove to be the group’s greatest weakness.
“This means that they rest a lot of their legitimacy upon the caliphate’s viability. They will expend disproportionate military resources to defend it as being viable. Another very big weakness is the sheer brutality with which they operate. This isn’t just a PR problem, they are now surrounded by people who hate them and want to kill them and are out for revenge," said Gartenstein-Ross.
Coalition airstrikes so far appear to be aimed at stopping any further expansion of the Islamic State, in what could be an attempt at forcing a tactical pause, said Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer now with the Soufan Intelligence Group.
“All we are trying to do is just keep the bleeding down from fatal so that the Iraqi government and then the regional partners solve this, the only ways this is going to work is when the Sunni and Shias of Iraq come to some kind of political agreement,” said Skinner.
But so far the Islamic State organization has proved itself adept at swiftly changing tactics and exploiting the political and sectarian divisions within Iraq, as well as the animosity between the Kurds and Turkey. According to Connable of the Rand Corporation, even taking out al Baghdadi may not break the Islamic State’s momentum.
“Abu Bakr al Baghdadi may be the leader of the organization, and he may be a popular leader, but there also is a military council, a ruling council, and organizations that are council based are particularly resilient,” said Connable.
Analysts agree that until the government of Iraq under new leader Haider al Abadi can reconcile with the disgruntled Sunni population, the fight likely will continue -- even if the Islamic State is driven out of Iraq.