Battered ISIS keeps grip on its last piece of territory

LONDON • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group has been stripped of nearly all the territory it ruled in Iraq and Syria and has been pummelled by nearly 30,000 airstrikes.

But the extremist group has managed to retain a small pocket of land on the Syria-Iraq border for more than a year.

The militants have on occasion struck back with some of their former vigour from their toehold, around the Syrian town of Hajin in Deir el-Zour province.

In the last week of November, they staged a breakout from the Hajin pocket, attacking the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces in the Syrian town of Gharanij, which those forces had captured a year earlier.

The breakout on Nov 24 was a propaganda bonanza for the extremists, even though officials of the US-led coalition battling the ISIS said they were quickly beaten back.

Major-General Patrick Roberson, the United States military commander, said ISIS took advantage of bad weather and sandstorms, when airstrikes were not possible. "As we degrade their capabilities and push them into an ever smaller box, ISIS continues to employ more and more desperate measures," Maj-Gen Roberson said. "These tactics won't succeed."

However, Mr Maxwell Markusen, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, warned against complacency.

"US and Iraqi politicians have been quick to declare victory over the group, using terms like defeated and obliterated," he wrote in a report last month. ISIS "is far from obliterated", he added.

NOT OBLITERATED

US and Iraqi politicians have been quick to declare victory over the group, using terms like defeated and obliterated... (ISIS) is far from obliterated.

MR MAXWELL MARKUSEN, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, warning against complacency.

In 2014, ISIS dominated an area in Iraq and Syria the size of Britain. But by November last year, it was reduced to the pocket around Hajin, which is about the size of Manhattan. American officials described the militant group's remaining territory as only about 50 sq km.

On the Iraqi side of the border, the extremists have managed to set up surprise roadblocks in Diyala province in eastern Iraq, kidnapping and killing Iraqi government officials and engaging in shootouts with troops, military officials said. And they have expanded attacks in Kirkuk province, taking advantage of the withdrawal of Kurdish peshmerga forces from that area.

Mr Markusen said ISIS attacks in Iraq were more frequent this year than in 2016, up to 75 a month versus 60.

And though thousands of its fighters were killed or captured last year, the group still has 20,000 to 30,000 in Iraq and Syria, he said. That is about the number that the CIA estimated in 2014, when ISIS was at its peak.

An ISIS member, who goes by the name of Yehya, claimed after being reached by WhatsApp in Syria not to be discouraged by the setbacks. "It's a war of attrition," he said. "When the coalition stops the airstrikes, we will return immediately."

US officials say the final push against ISIS is so difficult because the fighters have nothing left to lose and no other refuge.

Although the US military estimated that ISIS has only about 2,000 to 2,500 fighters in the Hajin area, Maj-Gen Roberson said they had plenty of time to build elaborate defences, including tunnels and booby-traps.

"We never thought it would be a swift fight," said Colonel Sean J. Ryan, a spokesman in Baghdad for the US-led coalition. "But it's proven longer and tougher than possibly expected."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2018, with the headline 'Battered ISIS keeps grip on its last piece of territory'. Print Edition | Subscribe