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Islamic State group battered, but still unbowed in Syria

Delil Souleiman, AFP | Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advance toward Manbij on June 23, 2016.

Moderate rebel groups are trying to push back the Islamic State (IS) group on two fronts in Syria, while the Syrian army has launched an assault on a third. But the jihadist group has managed to resist the assaults, surprising their foes.

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The IS group in Syria has many foes, many of them well financed and supplied by the international community. Together, they have made substantial gains against the jihadist group in recent months, including a Kurdish-led assault north of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and the fall of the historic city of Palmyra to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The military goal of the anti-IS group fight is focused on weakening the jihadist group by seizing strategic towns and cities such as Manbij -- located around 90 kilometers northeast of Aleppo near the Turkey-Syria border -- and al-Bukamal, situated around 120 kilometers southeast of Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border.

But while the group is taking a beating in its Syrian heartlands, it has also managed to put up a resistance on several fronts in recent days.

Focused on the cities, not the countryside

In Manbij, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, launched an offensive last month against the IS-controlled city to cut off the group’s access to the Turkish border.

For the IS group, losing Manbij would be a major strategic defeat since it would leave its de facto capital, Raqqa, exposed and unguarded.

While SDF troops encircled the city and its southwestern districts last month, releasing more than 13,000 trapped civilians, the hardline jihadist group managed to repel them before they could reach the city center.

According Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist movements, the IS group put up a much greater resistance than expected. "The jihadists launched a counter offensive and succeeded in attracting new recruits from the region who are hostile to the Kurds.”

The US-backed SDF is officially a coalition comprised of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and other local fighters. But is predominantly made up of Kurdish fighters, sparking Syrian Arab fears that the Kurds are intent on grabbing land and using the anti-IS fight to increasing their power in the region at the cost of local Sunni power.

In an interview with Aron Lund for the report, “Why Islamic State Is Losing, and Why It Still Hopes to Win,” FRANCE24's Nasr noted that for the jihadist group, losing territory in the sparsely populated Syrian countryside was not a strategic loss. “Losing the cities, however, is a problem for them. That is where the infrastructure is found. It is where you have the administration of services, and the control over the population,” said Nasr.

Over the weekend, the jihadist group counterattacked on three fronts around the city, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and an SDF official, Reuters reported. According to Rami Abdulrahman, director of the British-based group, SDF progress has slowed in part because IS group fighters had heavily mined buildings in the city.

US-trained rebels turn sitting ducks in al-Bukamal

The IS group has also managed to put up a defence in eastern Syria. Despite its capital, Raqqa, coming under a concerted assault by government troops, the jihadist group has succeeded in grounding the Syrian military assault at Tabqa, a strategic city on the Euphrates River around 20 kilometers west of Raqqa.

The jihadist group has also managed to push back a US-backed Syrian Arab rebel force, the New Syria Army, further east at al-Bukamal near the Iraqi border.

Founded in November 2015, this small rebel force -- equipped and trained by the US in Jordan -- was forced to retreat from the outskirts of al-Bukamal in late June when the IS group counterattacked.

A border post in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, al-Bukamal has been under IS group control since mid-2014 and is strategically critical for the jihadist group since it lies on the military supply route linking Syria to Iraq.

The New Syria Army has vowed to continue its assault on the IS group in al-Bukamal. But many experts believe that will be an uphill task. The fighting in this strategic border post pits the New Syria Army’s hundreds of non-Islamist rebels with no local stakes in the fighting against the IS group’s estimated tens of thousands of fighters.

According to the US-led coalition, the jihadist group had a peak of around 31,000 fighters – mostly foreign jihadists -- in December 2014. But their numbers have since shrunk to between 19,000 and 25,000. Despite their numerical losses, the IS group fighters still outnumber the New Syria Army, which is believed to have around 150 fighters, according to Charles Lister, a Syria analyst at the Middle East Institute.

"It appears that the United States has no regard for the lives of those they are committed to protecting. Launching a small force in the heart of IS group territory was totally insane," Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh, told the AFP. “The idea of dropping a small force in the middle of IS group’s heartland was utterly foolish, bound to fail,” he added.

No gains in wining local Sunni hearts and minds

Nasr however concedes that the New Syrian Army was able to advance towards the city and take the airport. But, he noted, the coalition’s strategy against the IS group was flawed. "Unlike Iraq, the coalition still hopes the local Sunni population in Syria will turn against the jihadists. That’s why they don’t destroy the cities – so that they don’t alienate the population," he explained.

“But,” he added, “that clearly does work: in al-Bukamal, we sent the NSA (New Syrian Army), a small group, hoping it would be supported by the local population. But they did not turn against the jihadists. The few who did were executed to act as a deterrent to prevent others from cooperating with the force,” said FRANCE 24's Nasr.

In addition, NSA rebels fight for money provided by Washington, not by conviction, making them less effective, added Nasr.

So, even if it is not making gains on the ground, the jihadist group is managing to resist and organise a counteroffensive. It’s a fierce resistance that suggests the battle to retake Syria’s cities from IS group control is likely to be lengthy. 

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