The beheadings and brutality haven’t stopped. But the effort to roll back the black-clad militants who call themselves the Islamic State is changing. And while it largely has fallen off the front pages of late, it’s likely to be with us in one form or another for some time to come.
A few things have remained more or less constant since the group stormed across hundreds of miles of Syrian and Iraqi desert earlier this year. They are the first such group to control a large swath of contiguous territory. They face ground forces that are largely incompetent, corrupt, fighting each other, or all of the above. By all accounts, they still are attracting hundreds of foreign fighters with a savvy online recruiting campaign. Many are coming from France, Britain, other Western European countries and the United States. Minnesota has been among the recruiting targets.
That said, the frontline largely appears to have solidified in the months since the United States and allies began a concerted bombing campaign against the group that is also known as ISIS or ISIL – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Once again, news reports of fighting in the Middle East highlight the strategic importance of obscure places.
A combination of heavy airstrikes and the introduction of Kurdish fighters from Iraq has prevented the Islamic State from taking the Syrian town of Kobani along the Turkish border, and may be slowly rolling them back. The militants also have lost Baiji, an Iraqi oil center, and the country’s oil minister says they no longer threaten its petroleum supplies. Meantime, airstrikes have put a hole in the Islamic State’s efforts to fund its operations by shipping contraband oil from areas of Syria it controls.
While casualty estimates in this kind of conflict are often little more than guesses, persistent reports suggest that the Islamic State is losing fighters, sometimes in substantial numbers. By one account, they have lost up to 700 in Kobani alone. In recent weeks, reports surfaced that its leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, had been hurt in a U.S. airstrike.
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, suggested recently that the tide was starting to turn.
Away from the battlefield, the Islamic State appears to be struggling to persuade other militant groups that it has firmly supplanted Al Qaeda as the predominant such organization. Gaining that recognition would most likely translate into even more fighters and financial support. While some have indeed pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, however, more established groups are keeping their distance.
According to one striking analysis, Baghdadi in fact has been able to attract what amounts to little more than a D-list of these groups, and even failed to buy the support of the Somali group Al-Shabab.
He also faces more competition inside Syria. When the Islamic State suddenly came to prominence in the midst of Syria’s messy civil war, it threatened to supplant not only rebel groups that the U.S. government supports, but Al Qaeda’s affiliate, the older, more established Nusra Front.
In effect, Syria became the scene of a struggle for preeminence in the global jihadi movement. Facing the prospect of being eclipsed, the Nusra Front is strengthening its position and taking more territory of its own now — largely from some of those other groups that Washington supports.
So where are we headed?
For the secretive Baghdadi, the world probably doesn’t look as good as it did a few months ago. He’s not exactly losing, but he’s not winning anymore, either. His momentum didn’t – and probably couldn’t – last. A lot of people are trying to kill him. Western and some Middle Eastern countries have joined in the airstrikes, in some cases planes from as many as seven countries in a single operation. There were reports Sunday of heavy strikes on Raqqa, the Syrian town that serves as his defacto capital.
The Iraqi government that marginalized and angered Sunni Arabs, giving Baghdadi an opening, has been replaced. The new government is somewhat more conciliatory, and U.S. military advisers are once again helping.
But things don’t look that much better for his enemies. The ground forces arrayed against him include Kurdish and Shiite militias with their own agendas and deep suspicions of each other. As military planners freely acknowledge, air strikes are not a strategy. They can do only so much. Their use in Syria has angered U.S. allies who wonder why they never targeted their primary enemy, President Bashar Assad, even after he used chemical weapons. The group that is gaining ground in Syria is Al Qaeda’s affiliate – not exactly an ally.
And then, Americans and Europeans are worried about recruits radicalized by the Islamic Front launching terror attacks if and when they come home.
Many Americans long ago grew tired of involvement in Middle East conflicts. This one may be much less dramatic than it was just months ago. But it shows few signs of fading away.
Mark Porubcansky has been a foreign correspondent and editor for 30 years. He served until recently as foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, and now lives in Scandia.