If sentiment in the towns in or bordering the so-called “caliphate” of Islamic State (IS) is anything to go by, the jihadists are winning the war. “IS is here to stay,” a doctor in Falluja says of the group’s grip on Anbar, Iraq’s largest province. It is a sharp reversal from just a few months ago, when the campaign against IS seemed to be going quite well…[A]fter the retreat of Syrian regime forces from Palmyra, the black flag of IS now flies over the ancient city; while Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, Iraq, fell on May 17th. The idea that IS was in retreat has thus taken a severe jolt.
Barack Obama describes the loss of Ramadi as a mere “tactical setback”. But a blame game has since broken out. In any case the group’s [IS] recent successes owe more to the weakness of the forces opposing it than to its own strength. The regime of Bashar Assad in Syria is looking wobblier than at any time since 2012. Its army fled Palmyra. Although Iraq’s Shia militias put up a good fight in places, its Shia-dominated and often badly led army is reluctant to fight and die for Sunni territory. Unless it improves the jihadists may advance further. The government remains reluctant to arm the Sunni tribesmen who might defend their homes.
The recent gains by IS also do little to address its weaknesses. It needs to generate huge funds to maintain its pretension to be a caliphate, yet its income streams, such as those from illicit oil sales, ransoms and looted antiquities, are all vulnerable to concerted pressure and windfalls from conquest are dwindling.
Its top-down structure leaves it vulnerable to “kill or capture” raids by American special forces (like one in Syria on May 15th that resulted in the death of Abu Sayyaf, the outfit’s financial brain). A more concerted air campaign could also set it back. Western forces are managing a meagre 15 strikes a day (compared with the 50 a day NATO carried out against Qaddafi’s less formidable forces in Libya). Mr McCain says that 75% of sorties fail to fire a weapon or drop a bomb, because targets are not identified. That might change if America provided forward air controllers.
The state of the caliphate: The fortunes of war, Economist, May 30, 2015