Islamic State’s supply of foreign fighters dries up as key territory lost
LONDON – Territory controlled by the Islamic State shrunk by 16 percent in the first nine months of 2016, according to new analysis released today by IHS Markit.
In 2015, the Islamic State’s caliphate shrunk from 90,800 km2 to 78,000 km2, a net loss of 14 per cent. In the first nine months of 2016, that territory shrunk again by a further 16 per cent. As of 3 Oct. 2016, the Islamic State controls roughly 65,500 km2 in Iraq and Syria, which is roughly the size of Sri Lanka.
IHS Conflict Monitor released its last territory report in July 2016. As of 4 July 2016, the Islamic State controlled roughly 68,300 km2 in Iraq and Syria, about the size of Ireland.
“The Islamic State’s territorial losses since July are relatively modest in scale, but unprecedented in their strategic significance”, said Columb Strack, senior analyst and head of the IHS Conflict Monitor.
The Islamic State’s losses in Syria over the last three months have been concentrated in northern Aleppo province, where Turkish proxy groups have pushed the jihadists back to around 10km from the border with Turkey.
“The loss of direct road access to cross-border smuggling routes into Turkey severely restricts the group’s ability to recruit new fighters from abroad, while the Iraqi government is poised to launch its offensive on Mosul,” said Strack.
In Iraq, government forces have secured Qayyarah Airbase in Iraq’s Nineveh province, a critical staging area for the anticipated offensive to liberate Mosul.
Divergent interests of forces participating in Mosul operation significant obstacle to long-term stabilisation of city
Turkey’s President Erdogan has stated that the operation to retake Mosul will begin on 19 October, and this week the Turkish parliament extended its deployment of troops in both Syria and Iraq. Erdogan was reported to have stated that post-liberation, Mosul was a city only for Sunnis.
Strong opposition to plans proposed by KRG President Masoud Barzani and former Mosul governor Atheel Nujaifi, seen as being backed by Turkey, to divide Nineveh province risks undermining co-operation between the respective military forces of the KRG and Baghdad in securing Nineveh province in the longer term.
“Should Prime Minister Abadi not be seen as going far enough in pressuring Turkey to withdraw its forces from northern Iraq, there is a greater risk of the Shia Hashd al-Shaabi taking matters into their own hands, particularly post-liberation,” said Zaineb al-Assam, principal Iraq analyst at IHS Country Risk.
Huge drop in fighting between Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State
“There is deep underlying competition between the Kurdish-dominated SDF and Turkey’s Sunni proxies over their conflicting ambitions for Syria’s future. For the time being, the US is cooperating with both, but once the Islamic State has been defeated as a conventional force, Washington will have to pick a side,” said Strack.
Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria has stalled the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) operations against the Islamic State, which led to the liberation of Manbij in August. IHS Conflict Monitor recorded an 87 per cent drop in the volume of fighting between the SDF and the Islamic State from Aug. to Sept.
Given Turkey’s vehement stance against Syria’s Kurds, US support for them is more likely to be sacrificed the report said. “The Kurds know that support from the US may dry up. They will be looking for assurances from the US on their plans for federal governance as a precondition for their involvement in any offensive on Raqqa,” said Strack.
Russia seeking to undermine support for Syrian opposition
Meanwhile, the share of Russian airstrikes targeting the Islamic State in Syria, as recorded by IHS Conflict Monitor, has reduced since the start of the year. In Q1 2016, 26 per cent of recorded Russian airstrikes targeted the Islamic State. That reduced to 22 per cent in Q2 2016, and 17 per cent in Q3 2016.
“Last September, President Putin said it was Russia’s mission to fight international terrorism and specifically the Islamic State,” said Alex Kokcharov, principal Russia analyst at IHS Country Risk.
“Our data suggests that is not the case. Russia’s priority is to provide military support to the Assad government and, most likely, transform the Syrian civil war from a multi-party conflict into a binary one between the Syrian government and jihadist groups like the Islamic State; thereby undermining the case for providing international support to the opposition.”