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Turning point in battle against IS?

The international campaign against the Islamic State is evolving quickly. As the U.S. announces a new phase in its campaign, the key question is what the extremist group will do to thwart the campaign

In his article for BBC Mark Urban questions: which signs might indicate that the battle against ISIS is turning?

"The trend lines which were all going the wrong way are now going the right way," argues Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy or White House point man for the anti-IS battle. I recently spoke to him and Didier Le Bret, France's National Intelligence Co-ordinator, at the Aspen Security Conference in London. Both claim that recent territorial losses by IS, financial problems, and more efficient sealing of the routes in and out of their "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria very well might overturn the battle.

"It's a lot harder to get into Syria, and once these guys get into Syria, it's more difficult for them to get out," says McGurk. This impression is backed by Pentagon statistics released this week suggesting there are now about 200 foreign fighters reaching IS in Iraq and Syria each month compared with 1,500-2,000 a month one year ago.

Oil facilities ISIS used for income have been hit, government salaries to those in IS-held areas have been cut by Iraq and Syria, and foreign remittances have been decreased drastically. Also, Turkey reported that it had prevented 44,000 alleged militant sympathizers from crossing into Syria or Iraq. Thus, the terrorist group now has to struggle for financing, coming up with revenue-raising schemes, from new taxes to parking tickets.

Besides financial instability, ISIS also faces a serious threat posed by Obama’s administration: earlier this week he pledged to send additional troops to Syria and deployed long-range artillery in Turkey and Jordan. Along with Iraqi army, U.S. military forces are anticipated to contribute their mite in long-awaited push on the city of Mosul. The American special operators are also supporting contingents of Kurdish and Syrian militias on the ground.

“All of this suggests an increased appetite for risk on the part of the Obama administration, which long baulked at putting troops in Syria or accompanying low-level Iraqi operations. The White House has apparently glimpsed the possibility that rolling back, or even crushing; IS might be attainable as a "legacy" item for the president.

Having charted recent progress, however, most people involved with the fight are keen to scotch any triumphalism. There are many obstacles still to the final defeat of IS, and the group has many cards it can play.

The faltering Syrian peace process and political disarray in Baghdad could help convince many Sunnis in IS-held areas that there is no real choice but to stick with the group,” continues Urban.

However, the chances are that after some of the regions are freed from ISIS’ control, clashes between Kurds and Shias will drive the country into an orgy of further Libya-style destruction, fighting over the spoils, and revenge. "You can never completely eliminate what you're talking about, the lawlessness, the tit-for-tat revenge type events," explained McGurk. "The post-Isil phase, which will be just as challenging." If anything goes wrong, the drowning in anarchy country might as well provide ISIS with a plan B.

French intelligence boss Le Bret sees an expanding IS role in that country as a nightmare that could destabilise all of North Africa, arguing: "If we let Libya become a safe harbour for Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS], this is going to be really, really, hard for us to correct that in the long run."

For European security services, however, the primary concern is not to allow terror attacks to repeat, since more pressure on ISIS’ ground might very well provoke increased aggressivity in Europe.

“The flow of returning fighters detected in France could carry with it many men intent on unleashing violence in Europe, as their "caliphate" falters. Le Bret's US intelligence counterpart, James Clapper, this week confirmed an assessment that IS had sleeper cells in the UK, Germany, and Italy, saying that "they have taken advantage, to some extent, of the migrant crisis in Europe."

It is the realisation of what may lie ahead that leads McGurk to characterise the next phase of the fight as "extremely difficult". Le Bret, also cautious, notes that while he thinks victory is inevitable, "This is not a war that you can win in a couple of years or five years," concludes  Urban.

 

By Stefan Paraber for GIA.

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