Strategic Retreat

ISIS Is Losing Ground, but Not the War

The terror group has suffered a series of defeats in Syria, but while the prevailing Pentagon view may be that ISIS has weakened, there is debate about just how much.

04.05.16 5:00 AM ET

The self-proclaimed Islamic State has lost at least three Syrian cities and towns in the past six weeks, including one over the weekend, each time by walking away from the fight.

And yet the Pentagon is not sure whether to celebrate ISIS’s losses or brace for even bigger fights against the group than it already anticipated for key ISIS cities like Mosul and Raqqa.

The territorial losses are among the biggest the terror group has suffered in the past two years. And Pentagon officials are watching to see if Assad forces continue advancing toward Deir el Zour, two defense officials explained to The Daily Beast, the biggest potential regime push east into ISIS territory in years.

Either way, ISIS losses, even to regime forces, have spurred a debate among defense officials about the degree to which the terror group is in jeopardy. ISIS appears to be running away from for fights for territory, but is that enough for the coalition, the Russians, and the Syrian regime to claim victory against the group?

The prevailing view inside the Pentagon is that the group is in trouble, weakened by attacks by both Assad and U.S.-backed forces. It has lost extensive personnel, after having been beat in places like Palmyra. Where local ground forces once trembled at the first sign of ISIS striking to protect land, the terror group intimidates such forces less and less.

Indeed, some Pentagon officials argue ISIS is so weak, it is time to ramp up the U.S.-led campaign against the terror group through more airstrikes and even more Special Forces on the ground, two officials told The Daily Beast.

A smaller contingent argues that the group, while weaker, is strategically saving its forces to protect its Iraqi and Syrian capitals, Mosul and Raqqa, and the cities that support those capitals.

Moreover, more than once the Pentagon has proved to be overly optimistic about its campaign against ISIS only to discover it is confronting an adaptable group, tempering some officials’ willingness to call recent ISIS losses a win. 

“There are still core things they are willing to fight for, and we haven’t seen those fights yet,” one defense official said.

The last major battle ISIS launched in Syria was more than a year ago, for the northern city of Kobani, which it lost to Kurdish forces. And some argue the major lesson ISIS gained from that battle was not to expend resources in conventional clashes unless they are critical to the group’s survival.

“There are towns where ISIS makes select decisions. It shows ISIS’s military prioritization,” said Genevieve Casagrande, Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “I think over the next few weeks, to make assessments, we need to look to places like Aleppo in order to see how ISIS is prioritizing key terrain outside Euphrates River valley.”

While the cities lost in the last few weeks helped ISIS gain revenue through taxation and other resources, what the group really needs to continue terrorizing Iraq, Syria, and the West is Mosul, Raqqa, and the cities that offer them logistical or financial support. Cities like Homs are key potential revenue sources. And Aleppo is a critical route between the self-proclaimed caliphate and the West.

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And perhaps because of that, ISIS forces not only retreat but also move toward those strategic cities.

Over the weekend in Qaryatayn, ISIS retreated quickly, allowing the Assad regime, backed with limited Russian air support, to reclaim the central Syrian city. There were early indications that ISIS forces fled Qaryatayn toward the hotly contested Homs, which is home to Syrian oil reserves and a far more valuable city to the terror group, Casagrande said.

Before Qaryatayn, the group lost the cities of Palmyra and Ash Shaddadi. While ISIS once fought aggressively to keep Palmyra, and Ash Shaddadi to a lesser extent, in all three cases, the group eventually purposely retreated from the fight.

The cessation of hostilities has allowed the Assad regime to move troops away from places like Aleppo and expand its grip further east as its foes are hamstrung. The Assad forces, often backed by an aggressive Russian air campaign, reclaimed each of those cities except for Ash Shaddadi, which was taken by U.S.-backed largely Kurdish forces. 

The fragility of the cessation of hostilities, which one defense official Monday called “teetering,” could limit the Assad regime’s push east and indeed push regime losses back. Because of that, many are watching to see where ISIS chooses to fight next—or instead decides to leave explosives behind—and what affects its reduced territory has on its ability to fund and recruit.

As with many things in this war, the truth of ISIS’s standing is complicated, mired in uncertainty, experts argue. The loss of cities limits the routes through which ISIS can receive and train foreign fighters, for example, but is not enough to cripple the group.

“It is clear that ISIS is weakening as a fighting force. They have had multiple offensives that have failed to go anywhere,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Loss of territory does weaken the group, but it is not fatal.”