An iconic picture that claims to show ISIS militants driving military vehicles through a newly-cut road on the Iraqi-Syrian border in summer 2014, paving the way to announce their self-styled Islamic State in both countries shortly after. This picture and similar ones, published by the extremist group, went viral in the aftermath of the fall of Mosul in June the same year. Photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Facing continued targeting by counter-ISIS coalition members Iraq, Turkey, and the United States, as well as non-members Syria, Iran, and Russia, ISIS-held territory decreased by nearly a quarter in 2016, according to an open-source intelligence report, which highlighted progress by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria and by government forces in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
“The Islamic State suffered unprecedented territorial losses in 2016, including key areas vital for the group’s governance project,” said Columb Strack, senior analyst and head of the Information Handling Services (IHS) Conflict Monitor. “This is despite the opportunistic recapture of Palmyra in December from a Syrian government preoccupied at the time with Aleppo.”
The commander of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism forces had declared “victory and liberation” in eastern Mosul on Wednesday afternoon.
“We expect Iraqi government forces to recapture Mosul before the second half of the year,” Strack said. “After Mosul, the Iraqi government will probably focus its attention on the remaining pocket of resistance around Hawija, which the jihadists are using as a base for their campaign of sustained terrorist attacks in Baghdad.”
Iraqi forces supported by Kurdish Peshmerga and coalition forces began operations to retake the country’s second-largest city and ISIS’s final foothold of Mosul last October.
The report cited the Kurdish-dominated SDF for achieving significant advances in the northwestern Raqqa Province in Syria with the support of US-led coalition airstrikes and special forces advisers. Earlier this month, two axes of SDF joined forces in the village of Kurmanju and are attempting a crescent-shaped siege of the city of Raqqa, which ISIS claims to be its capital.
“Raqqa represents the core of the Islamic State and they are unlikely to leave without a fight,” Strack said. “It would probably take a major ground intervention by one of the main external players, the US, Turkey, or Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian government forces, to expel the Islamic State from Raqqa in 2017.”
Leaders, including Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani, have said beating ISIS will require more than military efforts, but also defeating the social, economic and cultural aspects of ISIS.
“The Islamic State is internally divided into two opposing doctrinal trends: the mainstream view drawn from Turki al-Bin’ali, and the more extreme interpretation following the ideas of Ahmed al-Hazimi,” said Ludovico Carlino, senior analyst with IHS Conflict Monitor.
Al-Bin’ali is the Head of the Fatwa Committee in ISIS, and al-Hazimi, is a Saudi Arabian sheikh imprisoned in the kingdom since April 2015, who claims to represent the true Salafi-Wahhabism. Binalis claim Hazimis' interpretations result in chain takfir. The Hazimis retort that Binalis are postponers who accept the principle of ignorance as excuse, according to a Brookings Institute analysis paper.
The coalition has announced the killing of a number of top ISIS leaders over the past month, but its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still at large. In December 2016, the US increased its reward for “information that brings him to justice.”