Islamic State weakened by stronger coalition forces

U.S. coalition air strikes hit Islamic State forces in Kobani, Syria, in October.
U.S. coalition air strikes hit Islamic State forces in Kobani, Syria, in October. Photograph: Levend Ali/AP

Will the Islamic State last through 2015?

It seems unlikely. At least, not as the effective force it represented in 2014, especially after its June 9 conquest of Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. By the end of 2014, after initial successes on several fronts in both Iraq and Syria, ISIS forces began to be pushed back on several fronts.

The most important factor in ISIS' retreat was the U.S.-led air attacks. During the five months of air attacks that commenced in August, ending on Dec. 30, the coalition, according to Pentagon spokesman Navy Commander Bill Urban, "flew 13,232 combat missions and dropped 3,891 munitions."

If the same amount of missions were to be conducted in 2015, they would total nearly 40,000 combat strikes within 18 months, entailing substantial destruction.

It is important to note that Urban stressed "combat" missions. This does not include refueling tankers' orbits, intelligence, reconnaissance and other missions in which no bombs were dropped.

According to Daniel Gorure, a defense analyst, such figures obscure the real dimension of the air campaign. For example, just 250 strikes require the support of an additional 3,800 aircraft, 1,700 tanker flights and around 700 other kinds of sorties.

In addition, each combat mission is supported by thousands of ground crews, air traffic controllers, and armored personnel. This includes air and drone bases throughout the Gulf Arab states as well as Jordan and Turkey.

In December, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria estimated there were only "about 9,000 to 19,000 ISIS core fighters" still combating coalition troops with another 10,000 or so joining in intermittent battles.

There are approximately 4 million troops in the armies of the states that are ostensibly engaged in fighting ISIS.

But due to geopolitical clashes among nearly all of these states — Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon — all have been reluctant to fully engage ISIS.

It is non-state actors that have done most of the fighting, especially Syrian Kurds who are directly threatened by ISIS forces. The reluctance of Middle East countries to strongly contest ISIS resulted in its ability to occupy one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria.

It is this reluctance of the Middle East states that has led to ISIS' ability to kill, rape and ethnically cleanse thousands of Shi'a, Christians and Yazidis. On Dec. 29, a respected Syrian monitoring group, with scores of observers in Syria, reported that in the last six months, ISIS forces had killed 1,878 people, the majority of them civilians.

The monitoring group also reported that ISIS had killed 980 members of an Arab Sunni tribe, the Sheitaat, in fighting over control of oil wells.

It must be mentioned here that other atrocities have also taken place numerous times involving not just ISIS/jihadists forces, but between Sunnis and Shi'a as well. Shi'a militias have reportedly killed hundreds, if not thousands of Sunnis, especially in contested towns and villages.

But in the last four months Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and some Arab tribes in both Iraq and Syria have joined other government-state and non-state actors in picking up arms against ISIS forces.

Syrian Kurds, with aid from their Kurdish brothers and sisters in Kurdistan, Iraq and Turkey, have recently made impressive gains against ISIS forces, recapturing some 50 square miles south of the Turkey-Syria border.

Syrian Kurds now have 65,000 soldiers under the command of the Democratic Union Party. That force and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. with an estimated 150,000 soldiers, are the strongest combat forces against ISIS.

In the last two months both groups have been receiving billions of dollars in weapons from the U.S. and Europe. But Kurdish forces are unwilling to advance into what they consider Arab lands.

These Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria are expected to cooperate closely with the 3,100 U.S. Special Operation Troops and the 82nd Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team scheduled to deploy in Iraq in January.

These troops will be joined by 1,500 other coalition troops. Most of these troops will deploy to fight against ISIS forces in Anbar province positioned in towns along the Euphrates River from Baghdad to the Syrian border.

When ISIS forces are cleared from Iraq, especially from Mosul, probably in the next six months or so, the war will be continued farther into Syria.

Undoubtedly this is why serious negotiations took place among key officials of Syria's Bashar al-Asad regime in both Moscow and Tehran in December. More negotiations are scheduled for this month.

These negotiations will further weaken ISIS. It is unlikely that a viable, let alone effective, ISIS fighting force will remain by the end of 2015.