Daesh group suffers body blow
After months of losing ground in Iraq and Syria, the Daesh group is showing signs of wear and tear, and its opponents say they have seen an increase in desertions among the extremists. But the militants appear to be lashing back with more terrorist and chemical attacks.
Under a stepped-up campaign of US-led and Russian airstrikes, as well as ground assaults by multiple forces in each country, the militants are estimated to have lost about 40 per cent of their territory in Iraq and more than 20 per cent in Syria. At their highest point in the summer of 2014, the group had overrun nearly a third of each country, declaring a "caliphate" spanning from northwestern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad.
At that time, the extremists were riding high, known for their courage, experience, readiness to die and brutality. Now, those battling them on the ground say they appear to be flagging.
"What we are witnessing is that Daesh are not as determined as they used to be," Lt. Col. Fares Al Bayoush, commander of a Syrian rebel faction, said. His 1,300-strong Fursan Al Haq Brigade has been fighting against Daesh and Syrian government forces for more than a year.
"Now there are members who surrender, there are some who defect. In the past they used to come blow themselves up," he said.
A Palestinian-American member of Daesh recently gave himself up to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, but so far, the reports of desertions are mostly anecdotal. Brett McGurk, President Barack Obama's envoy to the US-led coalition fighting Daesh, said this week at a conference in northern Iraq that Daesh desertions have increased recently and more are expected, but he did not provide figures.
Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Daesh is experiencing a phenomenon he's witnessed in other extremist groups that begin to lose territory.
"You've seen more and more reports of defectors just broadly, and you've also seen more reports of internal killings of so-called spies," Watts said. "As they lose ground and retract you start to see these fractures emerge in the organisation."
The Daesh setbacks began over a year ago, when the fighters were forced out of the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani by local Kurdish forces backed by US-led airstrikes.
In December, the predominantly Kurdish US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces , or SDF, under cover of intense coalition airstrikes seized the Tishrin Dam, which supplies much of northern Syria with electricity. In the weeks that followed the forces gained control of more areas.
In all of 2015, the group lost 14 per cent of their territory in Syria, according to IHS, an analysis group that monitors the conflict. In the past three months, they lost another eight percent, a sign that the erosion is accelerating. The IHS figure roughly matches an estimate of a 20 per cent loss given this week by US Secretary of State John Kerry. In February alone, the SDF said it captured 2,400 square kilometres consisting of 315 villages including the Daesh stronghold of Shaddadeh, on the main road linking the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the "caliphate." SDF spokesman Col. Talal Sillo said the command will meet soon to plan for another offensive in northern Syria.
In Iraq, Daesh territorial losses have been more gradual. Coalition airstrikes have cleared the way for ground forces to reclaim towns and cities from Sinjar in the country's north to Ramadi in the west. The coalition estimates that between the launch of the air campaign in August 2014 and January 2016, Daesh has lost between 21,000-24,000 square kilometers about 40 per cent of the Iraqi territory it once held. Calls for a stepped-up campaign intensified wafter Daesh claimed responsibility for the November 13 Paris attacks that left 130 dead and the October 31 downing of a Russian jetliner from the Egyptian beach resort of Sharm El Sheikh.