The Islamic State has lost control over approximately 25 percent of the land it held in Iraq last summer, a new Pentagon assessment released on Monday concludes.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters on April 13 that the militants are “no longer the dominant force” in about 5,000 to 6,000 square miles of territory that they once held in northern and western Iraq. He said the “combination of coalition airpower and Iraq ground forces are having an effect” in pushing the front lines to the west and south.
“I’m not yet ready to say that the tide has turned,” Warren said, especially since the Islamic State still holds plenty of ground, including control of major cities like Fallujah and Mosul.
The U.S. military’s assessment of the Islamic State’s reach in Iraq also says that the group still has some kind of presence in areas of Tikrit — which Iraqi forces claim to have cleared recently. A new map lists as Tikrit and the western city of Ramadi as “contested.”
While punishing airstrikes by American and allied fighter jets have steadily targeted the Islamic State since August, wars against small groups of irregular fighters who exist with the help or even acquiescence of the local population are rarely won though airpower alone. That means Iraqi and Kurdish forces still have thousands of miles of dirt to clear, and plenty of cities and villages to push through.
Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces and the Iranian-linked Shiite militias fighting with them have been involved in near-constant small engagements with Islamic State formations in and around population centers like Tikrit, Hit, the Baiji oil refinery, and in areas northeast of Baghdad, according to U.S. military officials. The security forces also have been pushing to cut the resupply lines into Mosul for several weeks now, the officials said.
Much of this work has been helped along by Iranian Quds force advisors working with Shiite militias. The Wall Street Journal reported on April 12 that some Shiite Iraqi soldiers currently being trained by U.S. troops are even fighting with the Iranian-supported militias when on leave from their units.
When asked about the role of Iranians in Iraq during an April 13 “Twitter Q&A” session with the public, Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily tweeted that “Iraq seeks support from all regional and international partners. Let us not forget our common fight against ISIS.” He was using an acronym for the full name of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But where the Islamic State may be losing some of its footholds in Iraq, it is expanding its presence in Syria, according to the Defense Department’s assessment.
The group has gained ground around the Syrian capital of Damascus and in the city of Homs, and is currently fighting it out with other militias for control of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp.
While there are no American troops in Syria, U.S. and allied forces have so far identified 2,200 potential Syrian fighters to be part of a moderate militia to protect areas from Syrian government forces and the Islamic State, and are currently putting 450 of them though the next level of screening before officially kicking off training in Turkey and Jordan.
About 300 American troops have been sent to the region as part of a 450-strong training force. There continues to be no real timeline for the training program, which eventually seeks to create a force of about 20,000 militia members.